Microsoft Embraces the Web - Encarta and MS Student 2006
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006
Microsoft was long derided by its critics for having failed to fully grasp the Internet revolution. It was late in developing Net technologies such as a proprietary search engine and in coping with security threats propagated through the Web.
Not any more. Earlier this year MSN rolled out a great search engine and now Microsoft has fundamentally revamped its reference products. By committing itself to this overhaul, Microsoft embraced reality: nine out of ten children (between the ages of 5 and 17) use computers (USA figures) - and 85% of these get their information online.
The Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006 is a breathtaking resource. It caters effectively (and, at $50, affordably) 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, and colorful.
The 2006 Encarta's User Interface is far less cluttered than in previous editions. Content is arranged by topics and then by relevancy and medium. Add to this the Encarta's Visual Browser and you get only relevant data in response to your queries. The Encarta Search Bar, which was integrated into the product two years ago, and is resident in the Task Pane even when Encarta is closed, enables users to search any part of the Encarta application (encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, etc).
The Encarta's new Web Companion is a (giant) step in the right direction. It obtains search results from all the major search engines without launching any additional applications (like a browser). Content from both the Encarta and the Web is presented side by side. This augmentation explicitly adopts the Internet and incorporates it as an important source of reference.
It may raise important and interesting issues of intellectual property, though. Web content copyright-holders may demand royalties from Microsoft for the use it makes of their wares in its commercial products.
Encarta would do well to also integrate with new desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Users should be able to seamlessly access content from all over - their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web - using a single, intuitive interface.
The Encarta Premium includes a dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, games, 32 Discovery Channel videos, 25,000 photos and illustrations, 2800 sound and audio clips, hundreds of maps and tables, and 400 videos and animations. It incorporates numerous third-party texts and visuals (including hundreds of newspaper articles and a plethora of Scientific American features).
The Encarta is augmented by weekly or bi-weekly updates and the feature-rich online MSN Encarta Premium with its Homework Help offerings. Unfortunately, the Encarta still conditions some of its functions - notably its research tools and updates - on registration with its Plus Club.
The Encarta is the most comprehensive, PC-orientated reference experience there is. No wonder it has an all-pervasive hold on and ubiquitous penetration of the child-to-young adult markets. Particularly enchanting is the Encarta Kids interface - an area replete with interactive quizzes, pictures, large icons, hundreds of articles, and links to the full version of the Encarta. A veritable and colorful sandbox. Those kids are going to get addicted to the Encarta, that's for sure!
Encarta actively encourages fun-filled browsing. It is a riot of colors, sidebars, videos, audio clips, photos, embedded links, literature, Web resources, and quizzes. It is a product of the age of mass communication, a desktop extension of television and the Internet.
Inevitably, in such a mammoth undertaking, not everything is peachy. A few gripes:
Regrettably, installation is not as easy as before. The Encarta 2006 makes use of Microsoft's .Net technology. As most home computers lack it, the installer insists on adding it to the anyhow bloated Windows Operating System. There is worse to come: the .Net version installed by Encarta 2006 is plagued with security holes and vulnerabilities. Users have to download service packs and patches from Windows Update if they do not wish to run the risk of having their computers compromised by hackers.
Fully installed, the Encarta Premium 2006 gobbles up more than 3.5 Gb. That's a lot - even in an age of ever cheaper storage. Most homesteads still sport PCs with 20-40 Gb hard disks. This makes the Encarta less suitable for installation on older PCs and on many laptops. Despite the hype, relatively few users possess DVD drives (but those who do, find the entire encyclopedia available on one DVD).
The Encarta DVD 3-D tours have improved but they still hog computer resources and are essentially non-interactive. Is it worth the investment and the risk to the stability and performance of the user's computer?
The Encarta tries to cater to the needs of challenged users, such as the visually-impaired - but is still far from doing a good job of it.
The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Encarta are outdated. Why not use a more current - and dynamically updated - offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)? The Encarta's New English Dictionary dropped a glossary of computer terms it used to include back in 2001. All's the pity.
But that's it. Encarta is a must-buy (especially if you have children). The Encarta is the best value for money around and significantly enhances you access to knowledge and wisdom accumulated over centuries all over the world. The amount and quality of content squeezed into a $50 package (before rebate) defies belief. I am a 44 years old adult but when I received my Encarta Premium 2006, I was once more a child in a land of wonders. How much is such an experience worth to you?
Microsoft Student 2006
The previous versions of Encarta included a host of homework tools. These have now been made into a separate product called Microsoft Student.
Homework assignments are the bane of most students I know (not to mention their hard-pressed and nescient parents). This is mainly because of the tedious and mind-numbing chores of data mining and composition. Additionally, as knowledge multiplies every 5-10 years, few parents and teachers are able to keep up.
Enter Microsoft Student 2006 - a productivity suite which includes the Encarta Encyclopedia, assignment templates, tutorials, graphing calculator software and a Web Companion.
Similar to the Encarta, MS Student's Web Companion obtains search results from all the major search engines without launching any additional applications (like a browser). Content from both the Encyclopedia (the full Encarta encyclopedia is built into MS Student) and the Web is presented side by side. This augmentation explicitly adopts the Internet and incorporates it as an important source of reference - as 80% of students have already done.
This may raise important and interesting issues of intellectual property, though. Web content copyright-holders may demand royalties from Microsoft for the use it makes of their wares in its commercial products.
MS Student would do well to also integrate with new desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Students will benefit from seamless access to content from all over - their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web - using a single, intuitive interface.
MS Student's templates are actually clever adaptations of the popular Office suite of products - Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They help the student produce homework plans and schedules, projects, book reports, presentations, research reports, charts, and analyses of problems in math, physics, and chemistry. Detailed step-by-step tutorials, Quick Starters, and pop-up toolbars (menus) guide the student along the way in a friendly, non-intrusive manner.
The graphing calculator is a wonder. It has both 2-D and 3-D capabilities and makes use of the full screen. Aided by an extensive Equations Library, it does everything except cook: trigonometry, calculus, math, charting, geometry, physics, and chemistry. And everything in full color!
And if this is not enough, the lucky owner is entitled to one year of Online Math Homework Help: step by step instructions and hints for solving math problems (including algebra and geometry). The program addresses most math textbooks and more are added all the time.
For the student keen on the liberal arts and the humanities, Student 2006 provides detailed Book Summaries of dozens of classic works. Besides plot synopses, the student gets acquainted with the author's life, themes and characters in the tomes, and ideas for book reports. This is buttressed by a Book of Quotations and the entire corpus of the Encarta Encyclopedia, dictionary, and thesaurus.
This is the first release of a great contribution to learning. Inevitably, it has a few flaws and glitches.
Start with the price. As productivity suites go, it is reasonably priced had its target population been adult professional users. But, at $100, it is beyond the reach of most poor students and parents - its most immediate market niches.
Installation is not easy. MS Student 2006 makes use of Microsoft's .Net technology. As most home computers lack it, the installer insists on adding it to the anyhow bloated Windows Operating System. There is worse to come: the .Net version installed by Encarta 2006 is plagued with security holes and vulnerabilities. Users have to download service packs and patches from Windows Update if they do not wish to run the risk of having their computers compromised by hackers.
Fully installed, Microsoft Student 2006 gobbles up more than 4 Gb. That's a lot - even in an age of ever cheaper storage. Most homesteads still sport PCs with 20-40 Gb hard disks. This makes the Encarta less suitable for installation on older PCs and on many laptops. Despite the hype, relatively few users possess DVD drives (but those who do, find the entire encyclopedia available on one DVD).
Finally, there is the question of personal creativity and originality. Luckily, MS Student does not spoon-feed its users. It does not substitute for thinking or for study. On the contrary, by providing structured stimuli, it encourages the student to express his or her ideas. It does not do the homework assignments for the student - it merely helps rid them of time-consuming and machine-like functions. And it opens up to both student and family the wonderful twin universes of knowledge: the Encarta and the Web.
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The Future of the Book
The Kidnapping of Content
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The Future of Online Reference
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The Disintermediation of Content
The Future of Electronic Publishing
Battle of the Titans - Encarta vs. the Britannica
Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber
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