Microsoft's once-mighty multimedia encyclopaedia, Encarta, may merit no more than a footnote in histories of the early internet, but its demise contains an important lesson, says Jeremy Phillips.
To the new generation of children desperately seeking illustrations of dinosaurs to decorate school assignments, the word 'Encarta' may mean nothing.
Yet just 15 years ago, the most exciting part of homework was when dad or mum warmed up the computer with its state-of-the-art 386 microprocessor and slid the Encarta disk carefully from its cardboard sleeve to set the multimedia encyclopaedia that was to change the world whirring and clunking in the disk drive.
While it may have furnished an eager generation of learners with the unimaginable delights of Tyrannosaurus Rex, not to mention other gems of geography, history and culture of the sort whose natural habitat is the dictionary, Encarta is now itself a bit of a dinosaur. Microsoft last month announced its forthcoming demise, both in disk and online formats.
Kids for whom 'Google' is a verb, not a trademark, can instantly summon up images, sounds, text and marshal them into an interactive multimedia document of their own, which they can then email to teachers, share with friends, deconstruct and reconstruct at will, without the infuriating shackles of censorship in the form of sanitised content.
Encarta is unneeded, unloved and, despite the brevity of its life, a monument to its own cultural obsolescence. The most successful multimedia of its kind, it was also the most enduring: the last dodo to go.
It is difficult now to recall the excitement that rippled through the business and legal world when multimedia products such as Encarta first emerged.
Law firms hastily set up multimedia groups in their intellectual-property or information-technology practices, prepared for mammoth rights-clearance exercises and catastrophic infringement suits — would the whole CD have to be destroyed if only one item out of 100,000 was there without authorisation?
Collective rights administrators scratched their heads about setting the right royalty rate for a blanket licence on multimedia products. Computer salesmen had almost no need of a sales pitch. An old-fashioned 286 processor would never cope with Encarta, and why deny a child's intellectual curiosity by not buying a new machine?
The big rights-clearance and litigation boom never materialised. Encarta itself was launched on the basis of the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, a relatively low-brow, high-volume work that achieved substantial sales in its native US, but was little known in Europe except for its inclusion as a regular gag-line on the Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In comedy show in the 1960s.
Presumably the rights-clearance had already been done by the New York-based Funk & Wagnalls publishing company because Encarta — despite its size — never faced a single copyright-infringement claim. Microsoft added to its product by acquiring other paper-based encyclopaedias, possibly for the same reason.
The policy of buying more databases might in another world have been seen as the construction of an anticompetitive hedge around Encarta's market, but it did not bring about a corresponding enhancement of Encarta's business. That failure was because the database acquisitions were protecting a territory that others had no wish to invade.
It was the drift to broadband, the availability of a far greater volume of free information, the increased efficiency of search engines and, in the form of Wikipedia, the appearance of a nascent badge of peer-reviewed reliability, which spelled the death of Encarta.
When the disks and online service fade away later this year, few may mourn their passage. Yet the rise and fall of Encarta is a memento mori, a reminder that it is demand, not supply, that drives the commercial side of the information market.
Jeremy Phillips, intellectual property consultant to law firm Olswang and professorial fellow at the Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute, is a research director at the Intellectual Property Institute. He is a member of the IPKat and Datonomy blog teams.