We have talked in recent weeks about how we accessed music before YouTube and Spotify existed, how we recorded files on portable media before there were USB flash drives, and how we chatted with friends before WhatsApp existed. Today we have to address something that many of our readers will find even more difficult to imagine: how we did homework before Wikipedia existed.
And it is that, along with web browsers, digital encyclopedias is one of those few monopolies that Microsoft has managed to be demolished in recent decades: not so long ago, talk about ‘digital encyclopedia’ (or ‘virtual’, that’s how it was spoken at the time) was synonymous with talking about the Microsoft Encarta.
The person who writes this, concretely, was a member of that generation to which ‘la Encarta’ accompanied him during practically his entire time in compulsory education. Everything that many of you may have heard from your teachers about “don’t copy it from Wikipedia, I’m going to check it”, many of us had heard before about the Encarta.
There were those who, at that time, convinced his parents to buy him a PC using the argument of being able to consult the Encarta… even if what he had in mind was to be able to play Doom. In any case, for many, the Encarta was the first CD-ROM they had in their hands.
The Encarta is the result of a failed Bill Gates project: in the late 1980s, it wanted to join forces with the Encyclopædia Britannica to launch an encyclopedia for PCs. The Britannica, however, did not see the project clearly (rather, they did not see how profitable they were to help launch a product that would steal part of the pie they already controlled)…
…so Microsoft ended up teaming up with the less reputable Funk & Wagnalls to release a product codenamed ‘Project Gandalf’, which eventually became the first version of Encarta in 1993. This Windows 3.x release included 7,000 photos and illustrations, 30 color videos, 80 animations, 9 hours of audio, and 427 maps.
First edition of Microsoft Encarta. Windows 3.x, 1993 pic.twitter.com/1rGzinuyB3
— 𝔸𝕟𝕒𝕥𝕠𝕝𝕪 𝕊𝕙𝕒𝕤𝕙𝕜𝕚𝕟💾 (@dosnostalgic) June 20, 2017
That first release wasn’t too successful: Microsoft mismeasured the demand and the average income of its public, and the 1993 Encarta was released for $400. Microsoft soon rectified (the next version they released was already worth only $99) and soon started releasing themed versions and versions in other languages. The first version in Spanish was released on the market in 1997: completely translated, thanks to its collaboration with the Santillana publishing house, and for a price of 24,900 pesetas (150 euros).
From success to decline
In the years that followed, the Encarta became one of Microsoft’s most well-known products to ‘ordinary people’, and one of its biggest sources of revenue. However, in a dark corner of the Internet, the project called to be the culprit of the death of the Microsoft encyclopedia was already being born.. In March 2000, Jimmy Wales created Wikipedia, which would end up being Wikipedia 10 months later. Meanwhile, more and more Encarta users were gaining access to the Internet, discovering a world of free and, more impressively, up-to-date information. So, after shining a lot and very quickly, in 2003 the decline of the Encarta would begin.
Microsoft’s ability to react at that time was limited… but its interest in doing so was also limited: by then, the Encarta (like other desktop products of the company: MS Money, MS Works, etc.) had fulfilled its mission of serving as a hook to achieve tens of thousands of Windows installationsa software that already ‘sold itself’.
a death foretold
So those from Redmond limited themselves to starting a timid attempt to half-copy the workings of Wikipedia (but including a prior editorial filter). Too shy, and too late: In March 2009, Microsoft announced the death of its quintessential digital encyclopedia. The day the news broke, the NY Times gave an example of what had brought Encarta to this situation:
“In January, Wikipedia received 97 percent of the visits that Internet users in the United States made to online encyclopedias, according to the Internet ratings service Hitwise. Encarta was second, with 1.27 percent. Unlike Wikipedia, where popular entries are quickly updated by volunteer editors, Encarta can be embarrassingly out of date. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s entry, for example, identifies him as a Vice President-elect and United States Senator.”
Wikipedia editor (and expert) Andrew Lih said on his personal blog that he was taken by surprise by the decision, but that although “its interactive features were far ahead of other productsand had the rights to the most important historical photos of the last century” (Gates had acquired the valuable Bettmann Archives), the Encarta “was more a showcase than a business, he was an old school role model in a new media world“.