Note: This was originally posted one week ago at the blog of my employer, New Media Strategies. This post is now dated if not out of date per se, but considering it’s about Wikipedia, better late to post it here than never.
Earlier this week Microsoft announced it will soon be shutting down its digital encyclopedia, Encarta. The official statement didn’t actually use the word “Wikipedia,” but then again, they didn’t really need to. Wikipedia has 97% of the online encyclopedia market, according to Hitwise, a share that makes Google seem to barely have a foothold.
But this was by no means a totally foregone conclusion — and it doesn’t necessarily mean the end.
Longtime Wikipedia editor Andrew Lih, originator of such indespensible articles as “Seven dirty words” and “Ana Marie Cox” and author of the new book “The Wikipedia Revolution,” explained at his own blog why the news caught him by surprise:
Because Microsoft could have kept it going indefinitely, given its cash pile and the “Windows Tax” paying for everything. With this being such a prominent example of “free” trumping commercial and proprietary, I do wonder if this makes for a victory that might give spiritual comfort to others in the free culture movement. What’s next in Microsoft vs Linux, Microsoft vs OpenOffice, MPEG vs Ogg and other battles? …
Interestingly, Encarta was a product that was always meant to be a throw-in: a me-too product that enticed consumers as part of the Microsoft suite when buying a Dell or Gateway PC. It was never destined to be a standalone moneymaker. Add to this, the fact that Bill Gates founded Corbis as a photo and video archive, and bought the prized Bettmann Archives, and Encarta suddenly had a wealth of visual multimedia features. Its rich interactive features were far ahead of others, and it had rights to the most important historical photos of the last century. It was more a showcase than a business. It was an old school model in a new media world.
How very appropriate, considering what Encarta did to Britannica 15 years ago:
Microsoft had originally approached Encyclopædia Britannica, the gold standard of encyclopedias for over a century, in the 1980s, but it declined, believing its print media sales would be hurt; however the Benton Foundation was forced to sell Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. at below book value in 1996 when the print sales could no longer compete with Encarta and the Microsoft distribution channel which gave away free copies with computer systems.
Are you wondering where that came from? Please don’t wonder too long: it’s from Wikipedia’s entry about Encarta. This actually got me wondering. What happens when you look up Wikipedia at Encarta? Although at first there appears to be an article there is not. When the apparition is clicked, one is diverted to an odd list that will (with enough clicking) eventually take you to the third page (!) of the “Encyclopedia” article, which has this to say about Wikipedia:
In the early 21st century a new type of online encyclopedia, known as Wikipedia, enabled readers to create and edit encyclopedia articles. A wiki is a type of server software that enables users to create or alter content on a Web page. Wikipedia was closely associated with the open source software movement and rapidly expanded to include hundreds of thousands of articles, many on popular culture topics, in a number of languages. The philosophy behind Wikipedia was that a community of volunteers could pool their knowledge and crosscheck their work to create a free encyclopedia. Articles may be written by enthusiasts, rather than experts, and they remain unsigned and “open” to revision. Due to Wikipedia’s open-access policy, it is sometimes the target of vandalism or abuse. However, a crew of volunteer editors polices the site, usually identifies malicious content quickly, and removes it. In cases where a subject is particularly controversial the article may be “locked” so that further alterations or amendments cannot be made.
Apart from the uncomfortably ironic past tense, this is pretty good. Nice dig about the pop culture emphasis, too. But it certainly could be improved, especially the overly simplistic gloss on when articles may be locked. And they should know, as Microsoft somewhat controversially once paid a third party to edit Wikipedia — coincidentally, about the open source movement. I guess you could look back to that 2007 incident and see Encarta’s demise. Not only would somebody from Wikipedia have been unable to pay for changes to Encarta, I can’t see why they would want to.
As Lih points out, Microsoft is frequently in conflict with the open source movement. Which is exactly why Microsoft should release Encarta under a free public license, under the GNU Free Documentation License (which Wikipedia currently uses) or Creative Commons’ Attribution-ShareAlike license (with which it is also compatible). Yes, their business plan was undercut by another model — in a manner similar to my “churn” semi-manifesto — as it had previously done to another. So why not close the loop and allow Encarta’s knowledge to be used in building out Wikipedia? After all, one area where Wikipedia is deficient is material between the copyright of the last encyclopedia edition to go into public domain and the Internet age.
I don’t think this will really happen, of course. And there could always be a hang-up with the non-exclusive rights from Funk & Wagnalls, upon which Microsoft itself built Encarta. But if Microsoft is looking for goodwill — and these days, they should be — letting Wikipedia absorb Encarta would be an act of magnanimity that could go a long way.