In 1993, Microsoft released Encarta, a digital encyclopedia for Windows and Macintosh operating systems (Macintosh support was dropped after 1998) available on CD-ROM. Encarta was Microsoft's response to the success of Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia. By purchasing the rights to Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia, Encarta was launched with close to 50,000 articles for users to read.
From the beginning, Microsoft bestowed Encarta with a number of features that would become hallmarks for multimedia encyclopedias. Chief among these was Encarta's markup language. It was very similar to the World Wide Web, in that hypertext could be displayed, linked and searched. Encarta users could browse the encyclopedia and jump from one article to another using hyperlinks. When Encarta made the move to the web in the late 1990s, users were already familiar with how Encarta functioned.
Encarta also pioneered dynamic mapping functions that are considered standard today with services such as Google Maps and MapQuest. Microsoft MapPoint was embedded within Encarta, and allowed users to interact with a virtual globe that could be zoomed and rotated freely to zoom in to street level in metropolitan cities. When viewed within an article, these maps could be overlaid with various data points.
In 1998, Encarta was at the forefront of another technology revolution - the DVD. Encarta 99 was one of the first computer software titles and the very first encyclopedia to be released on DVD-ROM. In addition to a standard version of 12 CD-ROM disks that would need to be annoyingly swapped out as readers browsed content, Encarta 99 also came in a 3 disc DVD-ROM edition that involved much less disc swapping.
Encarta's Fall and the Rise of Wikipedia
Encarta blinked out of existence in 2009, after a relatively lengthy run of 16 years. However, Encarta's death was a long time coming and had been brought about in 2003, by the emergence of Wikipedia. Wikipedia brought two main advantages to the table: its cost (free), and its overwhelming number of articles (roughly 3.7 million articles today, compared to 62,000 for Encarta's last edition). Though its multimedia experience was considered to be much richer and informative, Encarta could not compete on price, and Microsoft announced in 2009 that Encarta would be going dark.
For users looking for text content, raw data and vital facts, there is only one answer to the question of where to turn - Wikipedia. With its aforementioned number of articles and human editing process, Wikipedia has become the standard place to search for encyclopedic information on the Internet, despite a penchant for inaccuracies.
On the other hand, for users wishing to emulate Encarta's immersive multimedia experience, there are few good options. Encyclopedia Britannica online and WorldBook.com offer web versions of their respected encyclopedias that feature more multimedia enhancements than Wikipedia, but none really approach the pioneering capabilities of Encarta.
Though Encarta is no longer available, its legacy will live on with Wikipedia and the online versions of popular encyclopedias that were forced to improve their products to compete with it. With the advent of HTML5 and future multimedia enhancements to the web, there may one day soon be a functional equivalent for Encarta in its prime, but for now users will have to find other, less multimedia driven options.