Before the internet there were libraries, and before Wikipedia we had the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet for a few short years between the two we had Encarta.
It seems strange now that we would use a cd-rom for answers to any questions on science, history or geography. The growth of Wikipedia and it’s mass of information on subjects as varied as obscure wrestling stars, tall buildings in Kazakhstan or legendary Welsh Kings has spoilt us. We no longer have to research or use and index. A simple Google search replaces the need to cross reference anything.
No citation needed
At the start of the home computer boom in the 90s nobody had yet thought about using the, ahem, “wisdom of the masses” to crowd source a trove of knowledge. Very few people even had a basic access to the internet let alone the infrastructure to be able to collaborate. This was still Web 1.0.
In its place came Encarta, a replica of the volumes of work you would find advertised on the back of TV magazines. Here you could have over 60,000 articles on just one disc. A massive 700mb of storage on one shiny cd.
Encarta knew it had a trump card over the books, it could play media. Rather than tell me what Beethoven may have sounded like I could actually play a clip of a symphony. I could see animals move, or watch clouds form (or at least in my memory I could). In Wikipedia I get lost in following links from topic to topic, with Encarta I was on the hunt for movies and interactive subjects.
This was a world before Google, if you could manage Altavista or Ask Jeeves then maybe you could find an answer on the Information Superhighway (to use a 90s term) but this would first involve using the dialup connection to get online. If you have the CD-ROM in the drive you could do a quick search and get on with your homework.
At least you knew you were using proper sources, this was an encyclopedia after all. You had verified sources and authors, it was as legitimate as using a book from a library. It felt like the future.
Yet the future wasn’t in specialist authors, the future was in information consensus. Peer review and editing over dedicated writers. Like most Microsoft products it got left behind as more agile developers worked out a better way of working. Even publishing it online had its problems, making users pay for information that could be obtained for free from a simple search.