Battle of the Titans - Encarta vs. the Britannica

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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November, 2004

The Encarta Encyclopedia - and even more so, the Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 - is an impressive reference library. It caters effectively (and, at $70, cheaply) to the educational needs of everyone in the family, from children as young as 7 or 8 years old to adults who seek concise answers to their queries. It is fun-filled, interactive, colorful, replete with tens of thousands of images, video clips, and audio snippets.

The Encarta is extremely user-friendly, with its search bar and novel Visual Browser. It comes equipped with a dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, games, and an Encarta Kids interface. Installation is easy. The Encarta is augmented by weekly or bi-weekly updates and the feature-rich online MSN Encarta Premium with its Homework Help offerings.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (established in 1768) sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product - but it is far better geared to tackle the information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. Its 100,000 articles are long and deep, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by the best scholars in their respective fields.

The Britannica, too, come bundled with an atlas (less detailed than the Encarta's), dictionary, thesaurus, classic articles from previous editions, an Interactive Timeline, a Research Organizer, and a Knowledge Navigator (a Brain Stormer). It is as user-friendly as the Encarta. The Britannica, though, is updated only 2-4 times a year, a serious drawback, only partially compensated for by 3 months of free access to the its unequalled powerhouse online Web site.

Would you agree that the Britannica and the Encarta cater to different market segments and that the Britannica provides more in-depth coverage of its topics while the Encarta is a more complete, PC-orientated reference experience? If so, what is the market positioning of the Britannica's Elementary and Student Encyclopedias?

Both encyclopedias offer an embarrassment of riches. Users find the wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. Encarta introduced the Visual (Virtual) Browser and Britannica introduced the Brain Stormer to cope with this predicament. Are there any improvements - or alternative solutions - planned in future editions?

How does your product strike a balance between browsing and research? Is one activity encouraged over the other?

The Encarta and the Britannica offer competing models for interacting with the Internet. Both offer updates - the Encarta weekly or bi-weekly and the Britannica 2-4 times a year. Both provide additional and timely content and revisions on dedicated Web sites. But the Encarta conditions some of its functions - notably its research tools and updates - on registration with its Plus Club. The Britannica doesn't. Are you considering a change in your approach?

The Encarta incorporates numerous third-party texts and visuals (including dozens of Discovery Channel videos, hundreds of newspaper articles, and a plethora of Scientific American features). The Encarta's multimedia offerings are also impressive with thousands of video and audio clips, maps, tables, and animations. The Britannica provides considerably more text. Is the Britannica planning to follow suit or will it remain mainly text based?

Will the Encarta/Britannica integrate with new desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, and others?

The Encarta offers 3-D tours which gobble up computer resources and are essentially non-interactive a limited. Is it worth the investment and the risk to the stability and performance of the user's computer?

In the editorial process, how do you cope with contemporary and recent developments, minority-sensitive issues, and controversial topics (such as abortion and gay rights)?

What features cater to the needs of challenged users, such as the visually-impaired?

The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in both products are outdated. Why not use a more current - and dynamically updated - offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)?

Both encyclopedias consume (not to say) hog computer resource far in excess of the official specifications. This makes them less suitable for installation on older PCs and on many laptops. The Mackintosh interfaces are also clunky. How can and will these limitations be tackled?


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The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

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