Sometimes, we don’t realize that the latest innovation is really just a transitional step. Such is the case with Encarta, one of the most interesting products of the 1990s. Encarta came along at a time when people were just starting to integrate some form of computing into their lives. While it transformed research for millions of casual users, its lifespan was short. The very technologies it helped to pioneer were the ones that killed it.

What was Encarta?

Encarta was an encyclopedia on your computer. Let’s back that up a bit. An encyclopedia, for those too young to remember, was a series of books with short articles on various subjects of interest. While it wasn’t a good research tool for anyone past the eighth grade, it was a quick way of learning a little bit about a lot of things. This is a typical encyclopedia published in 1962.

An encyclopedia was big and bulky. It was hard to find what you were looking for. Taking that content and putting it in your computer made it a lot easier to user.

Here’s where Microsoft came in.

You have to remember that in the early 1990s Microsoft was the most dominant computer company on the planet. There was no Google, Apple was a niche company and Facebook founder was a plucky child of 10. Microsoft wanted to dominate your computing life and Encarta was a way to do that. At $400 for a series of floppy discs, it was actually a bargain.

Encarta dominated the world of computer encyclopedias because after about 1995, most computer manufacturers started giving it away for free. Microsoft distributed Encarta on CD and it was a big factor in driving adoption of that technology. At the same time, publishers of encyclopedias started dying. This was the beginning of the end for commercial printing, an industry that had thrived for about 500 years before that.

Encarta online: the beginning of the end

Encarta’s early success was fueled by its licensing of the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia. As it evolved, it moved online. By the mid-2000s, it had begun to resemble a modern web browser.

Encarta had been built with the same kinds of technologies that later powered the internet. As the software evolved, it used internet standards and this helped move it online. Many of the articles were free but some had advertising or required a premium subscription. Unfortunately by the mid-2000s Microsoft had lost its reputation for being cool and people were less anxious to use a Microsoft product if there was one that was just as good and less corporate-looking.

Encarta killed printed encyclopedias, but Wikipedia killed Encarta. Even though Encarta had actually pioneered crowdsourcing for this kind of article, Wikipedia took that idea and ran with it.

Today, Wikipedia lives in the space where Encarta, and paper encyclopedias, used to thrive. Just like those other solutions, it isn’t a perfect research tool, but it is bigger, easier to search, and constantly evolving. And, it’s free. Thanks to pressure from Wikipedia, Microsoft stopped publishing Encarta in 2009.


the best article on the history of Encarta that I found was its Wikipedia page.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.