Can you imagine (or remember) living in a world without Wikipedia? If you wanted to know the basic facts on a given topic, what would you do? You could get a physical encyclopedia, but after you did, it couldn't be updated or corrected. It also wouldn't include audio or video, relying on verbal descriptions of movements and sounds. If you wanted to continue reading on a subject that was briefly mentioned in the article, you'd usually need to get a different volume at best or a different book at worst.

In the 1990s, the internet was smaller, slower, and harder to search, with Google only popularizing automated page ranking in 1998. If you had no idea where the information you were looking for was located, it could take you a while to find it. Thankfully, there was one more option.

The Rise of Multimedia

The CD-ROM was the innovation that made it possible. Photo: Jereme Rauckman

In 1985, the CD-ROM was announced, offering hundreds of megabytes of read-only memory in a compact disc format. Grolier quickly issued a text-only version of the Academic American Encyclopedia for $200. It sounded like a bargain compared to the $650 print version, but a CD-ROM player alone would cost more than that at the time.

Two important developments came in the late 1980s: sound cards, which allowed any PC to play audio that didn't sound like a series of beeps, and the Video Graphics Array (VGA) display standard, which supported up to 256 colors at the same time (just enough for GIF images).

On the first day of 1990, Britannica released Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia, with speeches, music and "animated images" (it was still too early for video), for $895, or $200 more than the print version. By 1992, both the New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia and Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia included video for $395.

The VGA standard was the key for showing photos and video on a computer screen.

Microsoft was late to the party with its own encyclopedia. Having failed to acquire the rights to Encyclopaedia Britannica or the World Book Encyclopedia, Encarta was released in early 1993, based on the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, for the same price as its competitors. While Compton's and Grolier offered steep discounts to owners of previous versions, it had no chance to gain a significant market share.

Taking Over the World

Nearing the end of 1993, Microsoft Encarta pricing was reduced to $99 for the holiday season. By the end of the year, it had become the best-selling CD encyclopedia with 350,000 copies. The price was never raised again, and the 1994 Edition was quickly released.

But what made the early versions of Encarta more attractive than a printed encyclopedia? The same things that make Wikipedia appealing today: you could search for articles by name or category, or search article contents.

Articles had a list of contents, a gallery of related media, and links to other articles. Another way Wikipedia later resembled those versions was the generic, text-only menus with light-grey and white backgrounds.

Other Encarta features were inspired by its competitors: the Timeline would show events, inventions and nations in a chronological order. The Atlas would let you zoom in on regions, countries and states, like a more static version of Google Earth.

You wouldn't even need an internet connection to get an experience similar to that of Wikipedia.

A staple of the series was the MindMaze mini-game, which was a trivia game with a maze as a framing device and beautiful artwork. For those who were tired of Solitaire and Minesweeper, it was the closest thing to a video game that could be played in the school library.

Encarta '95 was a big upgrade on the visual front using menus with dark backgrounds, about 20 years before "dark mode" became a trend.

Encarta '95, released in late 1994, was a big upgrade on the visual front, from higher-quality videos to more refined MindMaze artwork. It also had much more visual menus with dark backgrounds, about 20 years before "dark mode" became a trend.

Encarta '95 had much nicer menus than Wikipedia ever did.

Around that time, Encarta started to be bundled with computers that were marketed as a "Multimedia PC," which at the time meant having a video card that supported 65K colors and a 640 x 480 resolution, a sound card capable of CD-quality output, a CD-ROM drive capable of reading 300KB/s, a 25 MHz processor, 4MB of RAM, and a 160 MB hard drive. That was actually big progress compared to what was called an MPC a few years earlier.

In the late 1990s, Microsoft published versions of Encarta in several other languages, covering the Americas, Japan and Europe's geographic west. Those versions weren't simply translated, but included material from local sources, resulting in different versions reporting different facts on the same topics. Bill Gates addressed the issue in a Sunday Times column, controversially saying, "Reality can be subjective."

Discs vs. the Internet

At first, it looked like the prevalence of the internet would make Encarta even more relevant. Encarta 97 offered monthly updates for a year to those willing to pay. The 2 CD Deluxe edition included twice as much multimedia content (including 360-degree images), and could offer 5,000 web links as it got the updates for no extra cost.

The Encarta Virtual Globe was basically Google Earth, 7 years earlier.

As the amount of multimedia content kept growing, so did the number of discs. The original Encarta Reference Suite 98 included 5 CDs: 3 for the Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe Edition, 1 for the Encarta Virtual Globe, which included 3D simulated flights above famous areas; and 1 for the Bookshelf reference collection. It later became available on a single DVD, which could hold about 7 times as much data as a CD.

The multi-CD problem was solved for most in late 1998, in two ways: first, both the Encarta Encyclopedia Deluxe 99 and Reference Suite 99 were available in DVD format. Second, Microsoft launched Encarta Online Deluxe, which included most of Encarta's content with 42,000 articles for $50 per year. For those who couldn't or didn't want to pay, the free Encarta Concise Encyclopedia was still a good starting point with summaries of 16,000 articles and the same 13,500 links of the Deluxe version.

In late 1999, Britannica relaunched the site of its namesake encyclopedia with the full content of the print version for free, supported by ads. The site crashed several times within days due to the overflow of traffic before shutting down and returning a few weeks later with higher-capacity servers. The demand for a free online encyclopedia was clear, but a business model wasn't. In 2001, Britannica switched to a model similar to that of Encarta.

Britannica's free model didn't last for long.

The other thing that happened in 2001 was Wikipedia. Like other empires, it wasn't built in a day, and by the end of the year it could mostly be seen as a competitor to Encarta Concise with fewer than 20,000 articles, but then some could see what the future held.

The Encarta Reference Library 2002 was updated several times a month, and tried to utilize a type of media that still wasn't easy to run on the internet, offering 3D virtual tours of historical locations.

The 3D virtual tours were one of Encarta's last attempts to stay ahead of the Internet.

For those who still didn't have a DVD player, it offered the ability to install its entire content on the computer's local hard drive, as those had grown exponentially in size since the first Encarta was released. It also incorporated Encarta Africana, which focused on Africa and black history and was sold separately in 3 editions over the previous two years.

Turning Into History

The following year, the English edition of Wikipedia surpassed Encarta in number of articles, reaching 100,000 in January 2003. The free encyclopedia kept doubling its size the following 4 years, growing to around 1.5 million articles by 2006 thanks to its seemingly unlimited manpower (and much lower quality standards). Drawbacks like the lack of copyrighted material didn't matter to most readers.

MindMaze is responsible for many people's fondest memories of Encarta.

In 2005, the maintenance of Encarta was outsourced to Websters Multimedia. In its last few years, it seemed that the only ones who preferred Encarta over Wikipedia were children who enjoyed the much friendlier interface of the Encarta Kids section, introduced in 2004. In 2009, Microsoft stopped selling all versions of Encarta, and by the end of the year took down all Encarta sites over the world, keeping only the Encarta Dictionary online until 2011.

It's hard to imagine anything like the offline versions of Encarta happening today. Even those who are willing to pay for an electronic encyclopedia such as Britannica (which hasn't had a print version since 2012), don't see a need to keep it on their devices. Yet, many remember Encarta and its competitors for making them realize that encyclopedias could be just as fun as games.

TechSpot's "What Ever Happened to..." Series

The story of software apps and companies that at one point hit mainstream and were widely used, but are now gone. We cover the most prominent areas of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.