Encarta will go free online within six to 12 months

Battle of the Encyclopaedias as Microsoft follows Britannica's lead

Microsoft's encyclopaedia, Encarta, will be available free online within the next six to 12 months according to Microsoft's reference product manager Jonathan Hulse.

Microsoft's move follows Encyclopaedia Britannica's decision to put its 32 volumes on the Net for free last month. Soon after launch the site crashed, overwhelmed by demand.

According to Hulse, a UK online version of Encarta will be launched "within six to 12 months". Hulse stressed the online version would be "complementary" to the CD and DVD version of Encarta rather than a replacement, He blamed lack of bandwidth in the UK for not releasing an online version earlier. "Encarta is about true multimedia content and multimedia is fundamental to learning. The customer experience through the Web is not good due to lack of bandwidth," he said.

Admitting that access charges in the UK were "very, very expensive", Microsoft joined the call for BT to lower access costs. "If BT were to lower costs, it would drive usage," Hulse said.

Hulse was critical of Encyclopaedia Britannica's decision to move online. "One has to ask questions about whether it is a last-ditch attempt to revitalise Brittanica or an admittance its CD market has died a death," he said.

Britannica did not have a comment by press time.