Encarta’s Passing: Harbinger of Redmond Doom?

Microsoft has announced that Encarta, its digital encyclopedia, will be dead by year’s end. First off, hands up who thought it had died long ago?

Secondly, and before we get on to the whole Wikipedia thing, I’d like to make a more general comment about Microsoft: its online stuff is awful, and Encarta is no different. There are already plenty of people musing on why Encarta died, but I’d say one good reason is that it’s hard to access and get your mind around as pretty much every Microsoft online property.

What worries me is that this isn’t a small problem anymore. It seems indicative of Microsoft’s’s online strategy, or lack of it, and seems to suggest they’re having bigger problems than we thought.

First, you visit its webpage. Well you don’t actually. The highest result in Google is the online version, parked at MSN.com: encarta.msn.com. Before we go there, you may notice that lower down the search results, past an MSN dictionary—which may or may not be Encarta—and the Wikipedia entry on Encarta (already updated to include Encarta’s announcement) lies another Microsoft site: Encarta the product. (Interestingly, its immediately followed by articles discussing its demise, giving you a pretty good idea of how little Encarta has been discussed or linked to up until now. That such articles could rise so quickly on Google is a surprise.)

The latter website is for the downloadable software. Interestingly, no mention there that it’s a product that is dead. (By contrast, there’s mention of “web encyclopedias”, which it contrasts itself to:

Editorially approved content you can trust. In contrast to many web encyclopedias, the authors of the 60,000 plus detailed articles in Microsoft Encarta Premium 2008 are experts in their field. Your kids get relevant age-appropriate information from reliable sources.

(Many? How many web encyclopedias are there?)

Maybe it’s a glitch but try clicking on any of the links to buy said software and you get an error from DigitalRiver, the online store:

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Another example, for me, of how Microsoft online is a shambles.

Indeed, visit the first Encarta-branded link you see a different kind of logo:

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versus

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and a page that hums with mediocrity: a slice of Flash that cycles between several nothing teasers about nothing articles, tabs above that, confusingly, have one for encyclopedia—so is online Encarta not just an encyclopedia?—and some more pretty lame teasers “Beware dihydrogen monoxide! Relax, it’s just water. What other scientific pranks have people pulled?” better suited to some magazine website.

Clicking on the encyclopedia tab takes you a page that is a travesty of design and revealing about the state of the problem Microsoft faces:

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Two big MSN ads tell you they’re not pushing much ad inventory.The blank middle bit, filled only by the less than heplful instruction “Select a type of article to see a list of categories.” suggests someone there hasn’t done Design 101.

Click on the first link, to Encyclopedia Articles and you’re still hunting: “Select a category to see a list of subcategories.” By then I’m guessing you’ve probably lost interest, both in Encarta and this blog post, so I’ll leave it there. But I suspect that this poor branding, presentation, navigation and lack of non-inhouse ads has as much to do with Encarta’s demise as anything else.

My point: Is this just Microsoft scrambling around to find its way online (still) or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise at Redmond that is going to usher in a slew of announcements like Encarta’s? If so, what is next for the chop?

I’d submit a couple of candidates off the top of my head:  played with Microsoft Office’s Live plugin the other day, that supposedly lets me save and collaborate on documents online. Boy did that one suck! Then there’s FolderShare, which used to be a great product—sharing folders and files online between users and computers—which is now called Windows Live Sync, and which doesn’t seem to work. At all. (I’ve tried it on a few computers, and despite installing the software, you’re still prompted to install it even when it’s running.)

So disappointing. I’d imagined Microsoft eventually embracing and extending online but all I see is a congealed mess of half-products that can’t decide what they’re called, and where they belong. Critical though though I’ve been of Microsoft in the past, I hate to see this.

01. April 2009 by jeremy
Categories: Software, apps | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Yeah, as I mentioned on Twitter yesterday
    http://twitter.com/paix120/statuses/1423163326
    I used Encarta a lot as a kid, but it just didn’t keep up. Totally could have found its niche, but it seems like MS gave up on it. I think your article is ‘right on the money’ about Microsoft & their online endeavors like Live Office (which again could’ve been awesome, but they messed up again).

  2. Most of Microsoft’s online applications really sucks. I don’t even use hotmail anymore as my personal email. Gmail is there.

    Microsoft’s only key products are its OS and MS office.

    If “somebody” can jump in and get a market share on a newer OS that consumers can accept, Microsoft will be gone like Netscape.

  3. I think Encarta could have been a great product. It would have generated tons of ad revenue for Microsoft if they’d brought a model to the web similar to Wikopedia, but with full colour photos, streaming media, educators and experts doing live interactive webcasts to learning institutions, etc. etc. The list of possibilities was endless. To bad they missed the boat. Why didn’t Uncle Bill invest some of his 39 billion into it as an educational outreach?

  4. Ben, good point, it would have been a really good example of a portal beyond ‘brand new information.’ Too bad.