The Encarta Encyclopedia - and even more so, Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 - is an impressive reference library. It caters effectively (and, at $70, cheaply) to educational needs of everyone in 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, colorful, replete with tens of thousands of images, video clips, and audio snippets.
The Encarta is extremely user-friendly, with its search bar and novel Visual Browser. It comes equipped with a dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, games, and an Encarta Kids interface. Installation is easy. The Encarta is augmented by weekly or bi-weekly updates and feature-rich online MSN Encarta Premium with its Homework Help offerings.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (established in 1768) sports Student and Elementary versions of its venerable flagship product - but it is far better geared to tackle information needs of adults and, even more so, professionals. Its 100,000 articles are long and deep, supported by impressive bibliographies, and written by best scholars in their respective fields.
The Britannica, too, come bundled with an atlas (less detailed than Encarta's), dictionary, thesaurus, classic articles from previous editions, an Interactive Timeline, a Research Organizer, and a Knowledge Navigator (a Brain Stormer). It is as user-friendly as Encarta. The Britannica, though, is updated only 2-4 times a year, a serious drawback, only partially compensated for by 3 months of free access to its unequalled powerhouse online Web site.
It seems that Britannica and Encarta cater to different market segments and that Britannica provides more in-depth coverage of its topics while Encarta is a more complete, PC-orientated reference experience. The market positioning of Britannica's Elementary and Student Encyclopedias is, therefore, problematic. Encarta has an all-pervasive hold on and ubiquitous penetration of child-to-young adult markets.
Both encyclopedias offer an embarrassment of riches. Users of both find wealth and breadth of information daunting and data mining is fast becoming an art form. Encarta introduced Visual (Virtual) Browser and Britannica incorporated Brain Stormer to cope with this predicament. But few know how to deploy them effectively.
Encarta actively encourages fun-filled browsing and Britannica fully supports serious research. These preferences are reflected in design of two products. The Encarta is a riot of colors, sidebars, videos, audio clips, photos, embedded links, literature, Web resources, and quizzes. It is a product of age of mass communication, a desktop extension of television and Internet.
The Britannica is a sober assemblage of first-rate texts, up to date bibliographies, and minimal multimedia. It is a desktop university library: thorough, well-researched, comprehensive, trustworthy.
Indeed, Encarta and Britannica offer competing models for interacting with Internet. Both provide content updates - Encarta weekly or bi-weekly and Britannica 2-4 times a year. Both offer additional and timely content and revisions on dedicated Web sites. But Encarta conditions some of its functions - notably its research tools and updates - on registration with its Plus Club. The Britannica doesn't.