Microsoft recently announced that they’re pulling the plug on Encarta, their once mighty encyclopedia software. Tom Corddry, who was part of the team that created Encarta, talks about designing the first digital encyclopedia, the surprising backroom negotiations that surrounded its launch, and plastic that smells like leather.
BOB GARFIELD: Two weeks ago, Microsoft announced the death of Encarta, its encyclopedia software. The company will discontinue the program’s website by the end of October this year and stop selling the software altogether by mid-summer, except in Japan, where it will be sold until the end of 2009. For many, the only thing surprising about the news was that Encarta even still exists. Most computer users use the free crowd-sourced Wikipedia. But that wasn't always the case. Launched in 1993, Encarta was the go-to research tool for a generation of students. Then-Microsoft-CEO Bill Gates and current CEO Steve Ballmer knew the software would be popular, but primarily viewed Encarta as a chance to highlight the usefulness of personal computers. To their happy surprise, the software trounced its print competitors, quickly outselling Warren Buffett’s World Book Encyclopedia and the famed Encyclopedia Britannica. Tom Corddry worked on the team that helped design Encarta. Tom, welcome to the show.
TOM CORDDRY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So there’s this story – apocryphal or not, I do not know – but it’s before the launch of Encarta, and Bill Gates approaches his friend and business associate Warren Buffett, who owns The World Book Encyclopedia, tries to buy it from him. Buffett says no, and [LAUGHS] supposedly says – what?
TOM CORDDRY: Warren’s reported remark was I resent the implication that World Book doesn't understand technology. How do you think we make plastic smell like leather?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what puzzles me about this story, though [LAUGHS], I mean, if true, is that I understand why Microsoft did Encarta, what I don't understand is why World Book and The Encyclopedia Britannica didn't get to that market way ahead of you.
TOM CORDDRY: That was our first thought. You know, I mean, that’s why we approached them. We assumed that they would do it. The reason they didn't – The World Book had five divisions, one of those five made the book. The other four were sales organizations. The president of the real bookmaking part, a guy named Peter Mollman, joined our group pretty early on, and he explained it. He said, you know, here’s how the sales pyramid scheme works, here’s how many people are employed selling encyclopedias: Encyclopedias aren't bought, they're sold. You can't take them to a bookstore. Somebody has to go door to door. They have like full-sized photographs of what the encyclopedia will look like on your bookshelf on foam core, and they bring that into your house and find a bookshelf and put it in there. [BOB LAUGHS] And, you know, you can see how much better a parent you'll be if that’s there. And I remember this was when the light bulb went on for Steve Ballmer, who was a total skeptic about all things Web and multimedia in those days, but he got it about Encarta, that the great parental guilt purchase of the first three quarters of the 20th century was encyclopedias, and that’s where the market was. I mean, in Britain by, say the 1980s, the biggest buyers of encyclopedias were first-generation Pakistani families. I mean, that was true everywhere in the world. But that shifted. In the '80s and early '90s, those families started thinking, boy, if I'm going to do one thing for my kids that’s going to make the most difference, I'm going to buy them a computer. So we said we can combine the two great guilt purchases into one.
BOB GARFIELD: I've got to tell you, in preparing for this conversation I ran across some really [LAUGHS] fascinating encyclopedia production arcana. For example, when editing the print encyclopedias, every word that was added had to be compensated for by a word that was cut out, every paragraph for a paragraph, and for production efficiency, that stuff tended to come from adjacent articles. What would happen, for example, if you wanted to change your entry on Bosnia?
TOM CORDDRY: Or, in this case, you had to write one, because nobody had much of an article on Bosnia until, you know, it happened. So you start looking right next to Bosnia. You know, what can we cut out of Boss Tweed or, you know, [LAUGHS] what can we cut out of Boston or what can we cut out of Bozo the Clown or, you know, whatever? So the editorial effort – I mean, they were spending money on smart editors to do that. It wasn't creating any more value for the person using the encyclopedia. It was just being used to keep the page count the same because they couldn't make the books fatter and fatter, and they didn't want to touch many more pages than they had to because of all the pre-press cost.
BOB GARFIELD: In the same way that your CD-ROM business model gave you more flexibility than your technological predecessors, Wikipedia was able to clean your clock. When did it become apparent to you that Encarta’s days were numbered?
TOM CORDDRY: Before we launched it. We used to have conversations internally that CD-ROM was some kind of a transitional medium for what we were doing and that there would be something online. This was before the Web, but we talked about it. You know, well, what'll we do when that happens? Do we have sort of a limited lifespan business model, or will we find a way to take it there? And we thought we'd probably find a way. It wasn't a surprise, I don't think, that when the Web came along that it made something like Encarta hard to sell for money. You know, I'm a huge admirer of Wikipedia, and I'm fascinated by it and I use it every day, but I don't think it’s, quote, unquote, “killing Encarta.” What really has killed Encarta is the Web itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me more.
TOM CORDDRY: You know, if you think about what you do when you want to find out something, nine times out of ten, people just, you know, Google it. And Wikipedia’s brilliance is that it almost always comes up on the first page, but if there’s no Wikipedia article there’s still Google.
BOB GARFIELD: So goodbye, for the most part, Encarta, hello, Wikipedia. But if every dog has its day, when do you suppose Wikipedia will face its own doom?
TOM CORDDRY: Oh, I'm so tempted to issue an exact date and time, but I think Wikipedia -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Yes, Bob, I've just computed that. It will be September 14th.
TOM CORDDRY: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: And it will be at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
TOM CORDDRY: Yeah right, on the East Coast.
BOB GARFIELD: Anyway, well, listen, thanks an awful lot. I very much appreciate your spending the time.
TOM CORDDRY: It’s been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Corddry is CEO of Einstrong LLC and former general manager of Microsoft’s Multimedia Publishing Group.