Battle of the Titans - Encarta vs. the Britannica

Interview with Tom Panelas (Britannica)

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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January, 2005

Q: 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?

TP: The most important thing about Britannica's Ultimate Reference Suite is that is has three encyclopedias -- one for every reading level - and therefore can be used profitably by the whole family. So, yes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica itself is the more comprehensive encyclopedia, but realize also that the Ultimate Reference Suite also has Britannica Student Encyclopedia, created for the same age range as Encarta, and Britannica Elementary Encyclopedia, for younger readers.
So our positioning is that Britannica serves you from grade school to graduate school and beyond.

Q: 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 BrainStormer to cope with this predicament. Are there any improvements - or alternative solutions - planned in future editions?

TP: The 2006 edition will include search enhancements to BrainStormer. They're under development right now, so I don't have too many details. We also have some unique indexing systems that underlie the structure of the Britannica database, which our indexers have been at work on for years. We expect these to be the basis of some powerful search and
browse applications in the years ahead.

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

TP: Most people like to do keyword searching, so we try to keep that working sharply, but we have also tried to introduce as many other ways to access information as possible, such as subject browse, index browse, atlas, timelines, and BrainStormer. People have different learning styles and different preferences for how to find information. We try to indulge all of them.

Q: 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?

TP: We're not.

Q: 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?

TP: Well, I wouldn't say we're "mainly" text based - we have added a lot of multimedia over the years, and we've won some awards for our multimedia - but we will continue to offer comprehensive information for all ages. When you come down to it, the information that really matters in reference works is words. We'll continue to add multimedia as well, space permitting, but covering a topic thoroughly and properly comes first.

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

TP: Yes, that's a priority for 2006.

Q: 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)?

TP: This question calls for a treatise of its own. We have advisers all over the world consisting of the top scholars and experts in all fields, and with their help we try to bring reason and evidence to bear on developing the best approximation of truth that is humanly possible. Yes, it's hard work, because people disagree on many things, but it can be done reasonably well if you're determined. We strive to the extent possible for coverage that are universal - that is, it takes all major perspectives around the world into account and does not favor one "civilization" over another. One thing we insist on in all of our encyclopedias, regardless of language or what country they are published in, and that is that coverage of a topic be consistent everywhere. Like our eighteenth-century forebears, we believe that there is such a thing as truth and it is possible for humans to know it. Creating an encyclopedia is one of the ways humans do that. So we don't have different "truths," plural, for different countries or markets. We don't pander to local sensitivities or myths by covering a topic one way in one country and a different way in another.

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

TP: Most of the navigational features for which most people use the mouse have keyboard equivalents. We plan to do more in this area. We have concentrated in recent years on making our school and library products compliant with the U.S. Americans With Disabilities Act because the demand for this in that area is so strong. We are now turning to doing similar things with our consumer products.

Q: 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)?

TP: Sam, Can you give me examples of outdated dictionary information? We haven't seen much demand from our customers in specialized dictionaries.

Q: 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 Macintosh interfaces are also clunky. How can and will these limitations be tackled?

TP: We plan to improve speed and performance in 2006, especially for Mac, since we seem to be the only ones these days with a Mac version.

Also Read:

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Revolt of the Scholars

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The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber

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