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I Miss Microsoft Encarta (hanselman.com)
1198 points by zdw on Aug 19, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 406 comments

Encarta was part of my first job out of university. I worked in Microsoft's Multimedia Division, tasked with creating the first video and audio drivers for Windows. IIRC the BMP, WAV, and AVI file formats all came from this team at about this time.

In the summer of '91, I was tasked with assembling a 386 PC with an early CD-ROM drive to demo an early build of Encarta at a trade show. It was a lot of effort to find a combination of hardware and drivers that would work reliably together.

Encarta itself (at least at that time) was written as a Word document. Hyperlinks were defined using footnotes, and animation and audio placeholders were defined with custom OLE objects. The whole thing got exported as RTF and fed to a compiler, which created the runtime data structures optimized for CD-ROM access and that also built a full-text search index. The compilation was very slow and required huge amounts of RAM.

Around this time, the team had some awareness of HTML as one of many emerging hypertext markup languages, but the internet was still a few years away and no one knew what format would "win" for hypertext. In any case, there were no tools or browsers at all, so we had to build everything -- including our own search engine for the CD-ROM.

This kind of comment is the exact reason why I keep coming back to HN. It's great to read stories of real people who have worked in all kinds of amazing and inspiring projects, thanks for sharing your experience with us, it's always nice to read about technical details of legendary software.

Right. I used to spend hours on encarta as a kid :)

Totally agree

This basically sounds like WinHelp, which was a compiled format of RTF, prior to the availability of HTML.

It was in fact exactly that. The WinHelp team got folded into our group, and then WinHelp became something of an orphaned project for a while (or maybe forever?).

Off topic: Thank you for getting me to research the history of the hyperlink [1].

- 1945 linked microfilm pages in the essay "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush [2]

- 1964 the term "hyperlink" in Project Xanadu by Ted Nelson

- 1983 the "highlighted link" in HyperTIES system by Dan Ostroffin [3]

- 1989 manifesto for the Web by Tim Berners-Lee

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperlink#History

[2]: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-m...

[3]: http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/hyperties/

If you like that you might love this trip back in time from the one and only Douglas Adams;

"Douglas falls asleep in front of a television and dreams about future time when he may be allowed to play a more active role in the information he chooses to digest."


Not to stray too far from the subject, and you clearly have some valuable ability to improvise in tough engineering requirements. Where did you end up?

Hopefully his username is not an indication.

Haha, I was thinking the same thing, but hopefully he is retired after 30 years in tech (with a nice retirement portfolio assuming he worked at MSFT in the early 90s).

i certainly found myself thinking a similar thought, if only because said username seems highly applicable to my own life. mostly the jobless part as i have done a lot of work to leave the junkie aspect behind but i would be lying if I said vestiges of it don't still remain

I can remember teaching myself HTML using a WinHelp file I found on a magazine coverdisk.

Exactly what I was thinking.

That was a pain - I think I ended up writing RTF by hand.

Authoring WinHelp files is a pain (and indeed better done by hand or via a convertor from a saner format), but from a user perspective WinHelp is IMO the best format - the only thing i'd like (assuming WinHelp was still distributed with Windows 10 - though you can copy it from a machine that has it and it'll work) is the contents sidebar from HTMLHelp (which is also nice, but a full blown browser engine is IMO overkill and it gets often abused with fancy CSS and javascript effects in some CHM files - WinHelp is too limited for that, though some programs did try to push things further than should be pushed).

Call me a very ancient oldie, but the - in my opinion - best help system ever was the one from VAX/VMS.

It was rather simple, but thanks to its hyrarchical structure extremely accessible, even when you just started using the operating system.

DEC's extraordinarilly well structured documentation added to the whole experience.

Compared to that most technical documentation today is outright atrocious.

I was on a mailing list for a 'fanzine' in the 90's that was actually mailed around as a WinHelp file. It was actually really nice.

Hey, thanks for your work! I got a CD-ROM holding Encarta '95 for Christmas when I was in grade school and I loved it - spent a lot of time on that program over the years, and it really helped develop my love of learning.

> In the summer of '91, I was tasked with assembling a 386 PC

Interesting, as the 486 came out in late '89. Seems you'd like a little more oomph, but perhaps they were too expensive at the time.

One product design goal was to run on the mass market 386 PCs of the time.

It wasn't so much about oomph as it was about buggy device drivers that would inevitably blue screen at some point, or flaky CD-ROM drives that just never seemed to read the same data twice the same way.

> Seems you'd like a little more oomph

Seems like a case of "high-spec dev machine" vs "example target device".

A good point, so I just looked it up. This April 1991 ad [0] shows 386 desktops with a hard drive at around $2000 in 1991 prices, and the comparable 486 models with a hard drive start at $7300.

To put that in perspective, $2000 in 1991 is $3700 in today’s dollars, and the 486 would be a staggering $13,500 today.

[0] https://books.google.com/books/about/InfoWorld.html?id=0FAEA...

Interesting, I do remember 2000+ dollar computers in that time period, but $3700!?

Although '91 is earlier than I got back into PCs, strongest memories are probably more around '93, '94. The 486SX might have been the ~$2000 computer at that time. I remember later having the AMD 386/40 and 486/100 made better performance affordable.

At that time you could get a moderate 386 system at Walmart or Radio Shack for around $800. These were pretty common consumer systems for kids just on their way to college.

>the internet was still a few years away

Internet history fairy here to make sure people know that the internet has been in continuous operation since 1969 [1]. (And DARPA started funding research for the express purpose of creating a global computer network in 1960.)

What was still a few years away in '91 is awareness or interest in the internet by a significant fraction of consumers (or by Bill Gates for that matter).

[1]: Some people would deny the name "internet" to any network prior to the introduction of the internet protocol suite in 1982, but it was the same user-visible services (email, ftp, telnet, netnews, etc) running on both the earlier network that began operation in 1969 and the later network that some want to reserve the name "internet" for. In other words, the switch in 1983 from NCP to TCP/IP was mostly transparent to users.

You are of course correct; mea culpa.

We had internet; what we didn't yet have was HTTP.

No, we had HTTP in '91, but the web was small and consisted almost entirely of information about physics and computing.

And we didn't yet have a graphical web browser that ran on Windows or Mac. And MSDOS was AFAIK never adapted to allow the computer to interact with the user while something was downloading or uploading. (I.e., it lacked the necessary kind of multitasking.)

I just want to thank you for your work on Encarta. It was the first _real software_ I interacted with in my teen years; it fascinated me a lot back then and I believe it’s part of the reason I’m in software industry. Thank you.

I definitely poured hours into Encarta as well. I was already a big fan of computers but I do wonder how much of an impact Encarta had on me. It definitely built up that early browsing habit that translated so seamlessly into the web.

Encarta is a great example of Microsoft winning a market, and after it was defeated, letting it fade out. Wikipedia in some ways beat it, but the interactivity elements of Encarta make it something that you kind of wish had a more direct role in the modern day.

I wrote about this topic a few years ago (https://tedium.co/2017/07/13/who-killed-the-encyclopedia/), and it led a former CEO of Encyclopaedia Britannica to speak up (I added some of his comments to the piece). There was a lot of back-room wheeling and dealing around digital encyclopedias during that era, much of it centered around Encarta—Microsoft acquired a lot of publishers during that period and it effectively disrupted most of the rest out of existence.

But even considering that, Encarta was special. I think Microsoft had the right idea—it was the killer app for CD-ROMs—though it turned out that the internet would only make it a temporary success story.

It didn’t have to be like that, honestly. Imagine what might have happened if, for example, Microsoft worked more closely with the Wikimedia Foundation on the highly visual treatments the company was known for with Encarta. The nonprofit ownership was a good move, but the fact that MS seemed to cede the market entirely, especially so soon after disrupting the whole thing, was unfortunate.

I remember getting Encarta 95 back when it first came out (I was 14 at the time) and the interactive elements and audio clips blew my mind. It changed how I thought about information and got me that much more invested in learning technology.

Literally a week after getting Encarta a door to door encyclopedia salesmen came to our house and I showed him why I did not need his books. You could see the look of terror in his eyes.

> a door to door encyclopedia salesmen came to our house

That's an alien relic of an anecdote as there ever was.

The world has profoundly changed in the last twenty five years. Cheap, ubiquitous, networked computing has almost completely rewired society and changed business, jobs, dating, friendship, travel.

I really wonder what the next big changes will be. Cheap satellites in orbit and dramatically reduced LEO costs? Better battery tech? Advances in materials science? Human cloning and genetic modification? What modern trappings of the present time will feel used and dated in twenty years?

I think this may be a bit of an exaggeration. It's true that people socialize more in the subway than they used to, now that they can send WhatsApp audio messages to their friends instead of reading a novel. But the grocery store half a block away still sells food in much the same way they did in 1994. Bigots still yell at me on the street to go back to my own country. Most of the workforce is still employed rather than gigging, financially independent, consulting, or riding the purple wage. International money transfers still take a significant percentage, unless you use Bitcoin, which most people still don't accept. Elections are still being won by polarizing populists who promise paradise and then pick your pockets; here in Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner even kept the records of her illegal wiretaps in paper form in the secret vault under her house, facilitating access to them against her will by the police. (And that didn't stop her from getting re-elected last week; her opponent also has a history of illegal wiretaps.)

You'd think that universal access to all human knowledge would have remade society, but actually most of the humans don't really seem to care about knowledge. We got the Arab Spring, which turned into Daesh, the Syrian Civil War, and a new military dictatorship in Egypt. (And we got anti-vaxxers, global warming denialists, and "jet fuel can't melt steel beams.") Wikileaks didn't really move the needle on Obama's re-election. If cheap, ubiquitous, networked computing is rewiring the power structures of society, that's more because of Russian trolls and Twitter bots than anything else.

Probably the changes you're talking about will come. But I'm not convinced that it's a revolution that cute girls on the bus give me their Instagram instead of their phone number.

(See https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20741592 for my thoughts on other, more positive possibilities of modern informatics.)

For the ~95th–99th percentile wealth class, the world has changed considerably. For instance, I can travel anywhere in the world and find a place to stay within an hour, and do so frequently. As a business owner, I can find an international market for my product in a matter of months. I can get anywhere I need to without owning a car. I can maintain a high salary while living in a remote location, of traveling.

For the majority of people, however, things have changed little.

> I can travel anywhere in the world and find a place to stay within an hour, and do so frequently

Could you not do this before? Just book a plane ticket at the airline desk and ask for an empty room once you arrive at a hotel?

Yeah, I thought about saying that, but then I realized maybe the dude is talking about rural Tajikistan or something where there were and are no hotels, and I didn't want to be argumentative. (I imagine in rural Tajikistan random people would be delighted to offer you their hospitality, though.) I did travel around Costa Rica in 2003, and I never needed more than an hour to find a place to stay on arriving in a new town, even though internet access was scarce. So I'm not sure what the guy is talking about there.

The other things he said are mostly true. Here in Buenos Aires I've never owned a car, but that has more to do with being a huge megalopolis than anything else.

...yea. Weird. But now once you get their you can video conference call with a loved one for cheap, which in a sense takes some of the magic out of traveling as you're never really that much farther away than if you had gone to the grocery store.

You can always leave the phone at home, or simply turn it off till some emergency comes and then immediately turn it off again.

It might sound pretty awkward these days of pathetic instagram 'celebrities', but actually makes things like backpacking in the middle of nowhere much, much better experience. The magic is still out there

I don’t know, I’d say for the majority of people who aren’t so narrowly focused on conspiracy theories and political power struggles, life looks way different than it did 30 years ago.

Even in poor countries Facebook and cheap instant communication like WhatsApp have rewired the way people socialize and stay in touch.

This is mostly a response to the commenter before you, except your last sentence.

Well, I did mention people socializing via WhatsApp and Instagram. I think we just differ on what counts as “narrow” versus wide focus.

Life for ordinary Britons has changed enormously in my lifetime. In my youth it was unusual for someone to holiday abroad, now it's routine.

A budget flight to the continent and a week in an AirBnB in Europe can cost as little as a few hundred quid. Something that was only really available to the rich, or at least the very well off, is now available to almost anyone.

Ordinary Britons may not be in the 95th to 99th percentile wealth class, but they're in the 90th to 99th percentile. But I don't think that what you're talking about is a question of technology, much less of the internet — it's a matter of deregulation and political alignment, something that is coming to an end with Brexit. Aviation technology advanced in leaps and bounds from the 1890s to the 1960s and has only improved incrementally since 1970. (And of course we no longer have Concorde at any price.)

If we're talking outside the western world, things have changed far more dramatically. Across the developing world, hundreds of millions of people have risen out of abject poverty. My wife grew up in China, in a house her father built from a pile of bricks provided by his employer. She helped make their floor tiles, and this was in an industrial city. China's a different world now, and while they are the poster child, this trend isn't isolated to them. The chart linked below is astounding.


Is this because of the internet?

> International money transfers still take a significant percentage

Some do, but I can get dollars from the US into most European currencies for less than .5%.

We've come a long way from the '90s.

Oh, that's a good point — also it's a lot easier to convert Italian currency to French, German, or Dutch currency now, since they're all the same currency. I think that may be more a question of what the current political alignment is rather than the internet rewiring world society, though.

May I ask what platform do you use?

I use transferwise' borderless account, I believe their fee varies, but I am sure I used TW to transfer less than $10K to EUR for a fee of 0.38%. It now says[0] it's $4.48 to convert 1000$. Changing $1000 to HUF has $4.98 in fees. Both were lower a couple months ago.

Revolut will also allow you to move 5K GBP per month without any fees[1].

[0] https://transferwise.com/gb/borderless/pricing#conversion_fe... [1] https://www.revolut.com/legal/fees/#exchange

(Not OP) TransferWise tends to have a pretty good rate (usually sub 1%), though you would have to transfer a considerable amount of money in one go to get it down to 0.5%.

In Encarta’s case, cheap, high density storage mediums were passed by something that already existed and had existed for quite some time before, the internet. In other regards maybe the storage medium was just a side detail and the important part was what could be done with that data thanks to faster computers.

There might be some parallels here today with machine learning. Neal Stephenson's quote about the future already being here but not being evenly distributed seems appropriate.

As Encarta was being developed (~1991 per another comment here), the Internet was still highly nascent. I was at uni during this period, and a major bragging right of the campus I was on was dedicated high-speed network connections to other schools within the university system ... over 56K leased lines. Those were shared amongst the 100k+ student, faculty, and staff population (though a very small fraction of those used it).

The takeaways I get of this:

1. Exponentially-developing technology can pass you by quickly. The Internet went from exceedingly obscure to global in the ten years of the 1990s. Broadband wasn't ubiquitous by 1999, but it was increasingly available.

2. Standards matter. Even constructing a workstation that could handle reading Encarta was a challenge, and the tools to compose, render, and especially, present multimedia content (images, audio, video) were not common. Microsoft went the closed-source proprietary route, dooming them to the dustbin (though pieces were salvaged).

3. Standards are hard. Re-read above.

4. There are thresholds of utility that make or break things. I've been around infotech long enough (somewhat pre-dating the periods discussed here) that I've seen numerous technologies go from extreme cutting edge to widely adopted to passe. (And quite a few proposed but never gaining critical mass.) The reasons why any given tech fails right now are numerous. Luck plays a major role.

The present has exceptionally cheap bulk storage (my tablet has a 128GB removable microSD card for about $50), high-speed, ubiquitous, and wireless networking, and tools for sharding and distributing updated documents and file formats (git, rysnc, etc.). This makes distributed updatable large-scale works possible.

The technology of written works has undergone several seismic shifts, from clay tablet to papayrus roll to codex to moveable type. Less well-known (but only slightly) are the updatable formats: loose-leaf, three-ring, and replaceable bindings, all introduced in the late 19th century, which enabled updatable works. These were true "periodicals", where sections could be updated with amendments or replacements as information changed.

The database, digital file, early version control, Wiki, and distributed version control are, IMO, all legitimately novel forms of written works, which should be recognised as such. They have and will continue to change how content is created and used, and affects and interacts with society.

The Internet went from exceedingly obscure to global in the ten years of the 1990s.

This reminds me of the infamous Today show segment circa 1994.


Makes you wonder, will there ever be a replacement for the Internet?

What would that look like? An incompatible sister network that offers something the existing internet does not offer? A new network created after major disasters and world wide nuclear war destroy all existing infrastructure? I can’t imagine the existing internet would ever be replaced, certainly not by something offering privacy like ToR, because not enough people really care about privacy. The average person doesn’t really give a damn.

Chances are, just like modern internet took advantage of old communication technology (telephone wires) to spread, the "next" internet will take advantage of the "current" one.

It's already happening with new protocols not running on their own TCP port, but being 'tunneled' over HTTPS on port 443 (eg DNS over HTTPS).

At some point we can optimize away the IP and TCP layers.

Interesting question.

"Replacement in what sense?" probably deserves exploration.

The underlying fundamental concepts of the Internet are 1) packet-switched (as opposed to through-circuit) communications, and inter-connected networks, via BGP.

There's a lot that's layered on top of this which is seen as fundamental, but is not entirely so, most especially end-to-end connectivity and universal point-to-point access. The Internet formed under tremendously different conditions than exist today, with only a handful of nodes through 1980, and even as late as the late 1980s only a few thousands.

Roughly each order-of-magnitude increases since then seem to have come with its own set of additional headaches and concerns, mostly regarding management and mitigation of abuse. The idea of guarded borders has long been seen as anathema. I see it as all but inevitable, and the question is whether that's done well or poorly.

There are a number of earlier networking ideas which might resurface or be adapted for new use, and a survey of history might be useful here. (John S. Quarterman's The Matrix, 1990, is a fascinating time-capsule exploration of these just at the cusp of the modern Internet -- the World Wide Web does not even make mention, though "The Web, a national Canadian nonprofit conferencing system formed in 1987, does.

I'd also look at uses of the Internet and user needs.

Fundamentally, digital networks serve as communications and control media. Whether or not these need to (or can be) segregated is an open question, but splitting off, say, the IoT from other communications, might make sense, along with SCADA and military communications -- all largely control networks.

Splitting out video and voice from text and data, likewise. Much of high-demand comes from those.

As the Internet heads from the first billion or two users to the remaining five or so, questions of what technology, interfaces, and devices are appropriate for a set of digital newcomers may be worth consideration.

Or, looking at this differently: the degree to which those already here may be interested in maintaining a separate space for themselves. Not that this is necessarily equitable, but it may well prove to be attractive, say, in particular to minimise fraud and other malicious use or attacks originating from the global poor, who are in many ways justified in wanting some of the pie that's been denied to, or taken from, them.

How the needs, wants, attractions, and/or detractors or aversions affect technology development and adoption remains to be seen.

> Makes you wonder, will there ever be a replacement for the Internet?

Google. Circa 2030.

I think the phase that usurped Ecarta's position had more to do with good quality web search and to a lesser extent the crowdsourcing model of Wikipedia (run by a foundation rather than a for profit mega corporation) than to content or data standards.

Search within an encyclopedia (e.g., Wikipedia) doesn't rely on Web search generally (e.g., DDG).

I can see your point that content outside a curated context replaces an encyclopedia to an extent, and up until about 5-10 years ago, as clickbait and black-hat SEO finally won out, much noncommercial Web content was at least informative, if of generally lower quality than traditional printed sources. Convenience has a huge edge over quality, though. These days, it's Wikipedia's curated content, especially for complex breaking news stories, that is my first go-to. After Idleword's (Maciej Cezglowski's) piece on Hong Kong hit HN last week, I finally took a look at Wikipedia's article on the protests there. A full 73 page long article with references on a protest movement only a couple of months old. That's staggering, and exceeds all but the very best news sources. (Another case I'd noted was the Oroville Dam case, where Brad Plumer's article for Vox was the only trad med piece I could find even remotely approaching Wikipedia's article. The first instance of this I recall was the 2004 Boxing Day quake/tsunami in Indonesia / Indian Ocean.)

Wikipedia, on the other hand, greatly enhances Web search, though it also benefits generally from the high profile resulting from that.

Wikipedia's crowdsourcing, the reliance on underlying technologies (Wiki, HTML, mediawiki markup), and on a huge set of organisational systems, standards, practices, and solutions Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation have arrived at, were transformational. Though those too strongly resemble the largely equivalent or analogous practices of earlier encyclopaedic efforts dating back to at least Diderot, as well as other reference works (OED, see Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman).

(Note: updated to add 2nd 'graph beginning "I can see your point...")

The arrival of good internet search along with the ever increasing pool of web content doomed a curated content approach such as was used by Encarta (which could never aspire to be as broad or deep as the web). I can tell you, based on watching sales figures and talking to many customers, that web search was a much bigger factor for the business than was Wikipedia. In any case it would have been much trickier to get the level of crowd input given to Wikipedia by a for profit enterprise. Regardless of tools or formats used.

Hello trumpetsailor! My former colleagues have been pointing me to multiple fun Encarta threads across social media.:-)

No matter where I go, there you are. Welcome to HN, Joker :).

Btw despite the brief lifespan of the product, Encarta gave Microsoft reasonable return on investment. And arguably more importantly, it helped to quickly entrench the Multimedia PC standard, especially in homes. Which helped reduce Cost Of Goods Sold for all of the company's products, which netted a very nice return in cost savings.

> The technology of written works has undergone several seismic shifts, from clay tablet to papyrus roll to codex to moveable type.

This confuses a number of different types of technology. For example, we haven't undergone a shift from codices -- we still use that form for all our written works today.

Clay and papyrus are materials on which text is written. Scroll and codex are physical forms in which long texts are organized. Movable type is a technology for recycling printing blocks. None of those three types of things are related to the other two, except that it's impossible to store clay as scrolls because it will dry. Clay is stored looseleaf.

Interestingly, the history of writing in the Near East shows exactly the same confusion -- a big reason written Aramaic grew more popular than Akkadian was that it was drawn on paper and Akkadian was carved into clay, despite the fact that logically nothing's stopping you from carving letters into clay or drawing cuneiform on paper.

I'm compressing thoughts for brevity. The codex, handwritten, allowed random access, but was still phenomenally expensive to create. On the order of a million dollars per copy. They were chained, the language was standardised -- you brought readers to the work (Latin) rather than works to readers (vernacular).

Moveable type, cheap paper, mass literacy, vernacular language, typographic conventions, high-speed presses, and mass distribution, create a wholly different impact.

As Elizabeth Eisenstein noted, the printing press is an agent of social change. Generalised, all comms tech is.

> The codex, handwritten, allowed random access

So do scrolls. You're not supposed to open the entire scroll at once. The codex is better at this.

> but was still phenomenally expensive to create. On the order of a million dollars per copy.

This is nonsense. You can prepare a very expensive book, but you don't have to. The idea that books were necessarily earth-shakingly expensive to create conflicts with the known reality of commercial popular novels in the ancient world.

I think the "not evenly distributed" quote is from William Gibson.

That's a William Gibson quote.

>I really wonder what the next big changes will be

Temps up 2°C, marine ecosystems collapse, and hundreds of millions of refugees?

Yes, but will I be able to order a dog-walker from an app?


The projections from big oil in the early 80’s say the global economic system will collapse in about 20 years.

They nailed the current temperature rise. No reason to think the rest of the extrapolated curve is wrong.

Source? Curious to read

Yah. People will just die. Refugee sort of implies a refuge. There’s not going to be such thing’s around if things go south as we fear they are likely to. It’s gonna play out far more like the Old Testament.

> There’s not going to be such thing’s around

Heretofor uninhabitable places such as ... greenland maybe?

Greenland barely has soil. Take a look at the bed of a former glacier, and count the trees.

It depends on where you look. Glaciers pick up material for sure, but where they melt, it is all deposited as glacial till which provides nice heavy soil for agriculture. As Greenland thaws, all this stuff will be deposited upon it. Ireland for instance, and parts of the UK have been beneficiaries of this.

Also, worth considering is that it is virgin territory for exploration for minerals and other goodies.

No shortage of water either.

But even all that aside, it is newly available space. If you can build a city in a desert (Phoenix, Arizona lets say) you can build one on Greenland.

The only reason you can build a city in a desert is the abundance of cheap energy and the ability to build what it needs elsewhere. These two conditions are not met in an hypothetic refuge.

As for soil, the creation of soil in Ireland and the UK took quite a bit of time.

You haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. You talking out your arse.

Is that why Trump wants to buy it?

Start with the happy case or people will shut down and stop listening.

Seriously. Refugees? Mass extinction, more likely.

Why do you think those are mutually exclusive?

you mean the last 30 years?

My family was never one to spend a dollar if we could spend a nickel, so our encyclopedia was significantly out of date, as was our globe. But if you knew that the USSR didn’t really exist anymore, everything else was pretty much the same. Most knowledge doesn't become wrong; it just becomes history.

My physics teacher once announced, "physics survives all regime changes", as he whipped out a stack of GDR-era textbooks.

Cashless and bankless society.

I moved to London last year and have used cash roughly zero times since. Visiting my parents (outside London) is like jumping in to treacle. Finding coins for the bus? Paper tickets on the train? Give me a god damn break. Even using chip and pin is weird now since almost all my purchases, except for dining out, are either touchless, online, or via mobile app.

In 20 years i think cash (banknotes, coinage), and maybe even bank accounts as we know them today, will be an almost alien concept to kids. Brick and mortar banks will be gone entirely. I certainly haven't set foot in one over a decade.

> Brick and mortar banks will be gone entirely. I certainly haven't set foot in one over a decade.

Don't have a safety deposit box with precious metals and jewels inside?

Many, many people do - among other items (guns, cash, drugs, etc).

While "brick and mortar" banks may not exist, something of the same nature will - some kind of high-security place to store stuff like that, away from home. Maybe it will also be combined with some kind of networked backup storage for data as well...

To an extent, places like this do exist - private vault companies; always have.

I guess my point is that physical banks offer other services which can't be replicated virtually.

I seem to recall reading an article on HN a few weeks ago about how banks are pulling out of the safety deposit business now that their new branches don't really need vaults for cash, and it's not clear that any replacement for those services is emerging with the same geographic reach as the retail banking system.

Also the main point of the article was that the safety deposit boxes aren't even safe.


I've been in a bank recently to get penny rolls.

Why do you think "safety deposit box" is a "safe deposit box", just because of the name and branding?

Give this a try, go open and put some rock in your safe deposit box, then call the bank and tell them you placed a C4 explosive in the box and will detonate it if they dont deposit gold under a park-bench in 2 days time.

Then watch how safe your safety deposit box is.

> Cashless and bankless society.

I live in backwards South Africa, and even I can't remember the last time I needed to use cash. So I'm totally with you on that one.

But bankless? Eh, I think we are at least two or tree decades away from that.

My parents got us a full blown Encyclopedia Britannica book set in the 80s. Probably cost $1000 which was difficult by how much they made. But they paid it down monthly. I used to have loads of fun thumbing through those books. There were a few index books where you looked up a topic and it would refer you to a page in one of the other books. Closest thing to the internet back then.

I had a complete set of the Joy of Knowledge Encyclopedia when I was a kid in the early 80s. They'd send you a magazine-sized section each week and you'd gradually build up to a full set which you could bind yourself in the provided hardback covers.

I think subscribing to that was one of the best things my parents ever did for my education. Over the course of my youth I devoured it several times and credit it to my earliest exposure to countless subjects that they'd never touch at school.

One of the most notable things about The Joy of Knowledge was the extraordinary explanatory art. One day I will have to find my books and make some scans.

I had a World Book and then an Encyclopedia Britannica growing up. They gave me many many hours of pleasure. (I still have the Britannica in my garage. I've cleaned out a lot of things over the years but I can't bring myself to toss that.)

And, yes, I seem to recall the price was something in the $500-$1000 ballpark. Which was definitely a lot of money in the early 70s(?) when I got it--and, yes, the salesman came to the house.

I inherited a 1952 World Book set from an older cousin, then part-exchanged it for a 1979 set (plus the 1980 "Year Book" update) thanks to the encyclopedia salesman. The normal price would have been around $1000 even then. Today they weigh down/stabilize one of my freestanding bookshelves in the living room.

> I still have the Britannica in my garage. I've cleaned out a lot of things over the years but I can't bring myself to toss that.

Same here! The knowledge was obsolete but the memories of my childhood were a part of it. I eventually recycled most of them after I last moved but there are a few books I still have somewhere.

>I still have the Britannica in my garage. I've cleaned out a lot of things over the years but I can't bring myself to toss that.

A few years ago, during a move,I finally parted with the set my parents had gotten in the late 60s or early 70s. It was painful, but I had to really downsize at the time.

I still have my 1911 edition, which I can't get rid of, even if I haven't cracked a volume in a couple of years.

We had childcraft, as I recall, but definitely never could have afforded the $1000-$1500 for Britannica.

One word for Encarta and the like: Edutainment.

In elementary school they taught us to use an index book. I wonder if this skill is taught today. (doubtful.)

Another skill not taught today - how to use a library card catalog.

Looking up things in the card catalog, and on microfiche at my local library, was as much fun as locating the book itself. Sometimes, in the course of searching the catalog, I'd come across other books that sounded interesting, so I would write down those call numbers, too.

Or browsing microfiche roll magazines and newspapers - high speed fast forward and reverse, then for 10 cents a page (!) pop off a copy to take home.

That is one part I don't miss - having to pay for photocopies...

I was a kid in the early 90's, and the card catalog was already dead back then - our library had green screen terminals to look up books that I used.

A long time encyclopedia editor (who worked at Britannica, World Book, and Encarta) told me that door to door encyclopedia sales were dying well before Encarta. Due to the rise in two income couples, which radically narrowed the time window when you could get anyone to give you time at the door...

My grandparents got a Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia one volume at a time from a supermarket marketing thing in the 1950s.

Amusingly, many of the articles in Encarta were copied verbatim from there.

Last part of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funk_%26_Wagnalls

>"After failing to purchase rights to the text of the Encyclopædia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia for its Encarta digital encyclopedia, Microsoft reluctantly used (under license) the text of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia for the first editions of its encyclopedia. This licensed text was gradually replaced over the following years with content Microsoft created itself.[7]"

the interactive elements and audio clips blew my mind. It changed how I thought about information

Same experience here. It was like having the computer from the Starship Enterprise but it was right here and now and I got to use it. It’s been a long time since I felt that sense of wonder from anything in computing.

I saw the Hindenburg disaster video on Encarta, which was an intro to how articles and media could be put together. It amazed me at the time.

With a little bit of investment, the Civilization game series could be leveraged to replace that feeling you got from Encarta.

Do you happen to remember this?



Yeah it is THE software for multi-media showcase. Back in 90s I had a copy of shareware/demo version and it already blowed my mind off. The whole collection was like a dozen CD I think? I never got the chance to see it though. Nowadays we still don't have something that match up the experience.

I actually just found an encarta 95 disk in a spindle of other random disks I had. Good memories from it.

We have an old encyclopedia set - not Britannica though, from the 1910s or 1920s. I think it was my grandfather's originally, bought for father and uncles. Perhaps the generation earlier.

Whilst it's not especially useful in today's world, it's a fascinating relic, especially on trades and skills that have declined or died out. On medicine, zoology and other sciences, it's occasionally surprising how we used to think. I'd periodically pick it up and read a few entries at random, and often disappear down a rabbit hole. At some point it stopped being obsolete and pointless to become fascinating history.

That's one thing Encarta could have been had it continued - a valuable snapshot of how thought and knowledge evolved. Always updated Wikipedia can and will never be that as sadly you can't snapshot a given date, and digging through edit histories is horribly unfriendly. We may have lost something there.

> Whilst it's not especially useful in today's world, it's a fascinating relic, especially on trades and skills that have declined or died out.

Same for me. My grandfather was a teacher and I saved quite a few of the old school/teaching books after he died.

Did you know that the Empire State Building is the highest building on earth?

Well, it was, when these books were printed. :-)

> It didn’t have to be like that, honestly. Imagine what might have happened if, for example, Microsoft worked more closely with the Wikimedia Foundation on the highly visual treatments the company was known for with Encarta. The nonprofit ownership was a good move, but the fact that MS seemed to cede the market entirely, especially so soon after disrupting the whole thing, was unfortunate.

We actually asked them about this, IIRC - it turns out a lot of that stuff was licensed from third parties, and they weren't free to release it under a free content license, and didn't have the resources to sort out what was what.

That’s very unfortunate, but I’m glad to hear Wikipedia was actually thinking in this general direction.

It's funny to think of it but CD-ROMs ... really were where all the multimedia was.

Outside professionals, not many people stored videos or audio on their PC in the early day, so all the multimedia type stuff, and to some extent including video games ... was all centered around the CD-ROM.

I used to gobble up all the super cheap "multimedia collection" type disks available at the time.

To some extent what made computers the multimedia place to be was the good old CD-ROM, well before the internet took it over.

There were earlier systems in the 1980s that combined PCs (or equivalent machines) with Pioneer LaserDisc systems (which could be controlled via a serial port) - a somewhat well known one was the BBC Domesday Project:


An early glimpse of the future, somewhat.

Man what a mess of a project that was.

If only they had waited ten or so years.

Encarta is a great example of Microsoft winning a market, and after it was defeated, letting it fade out.

Encarta lasted from 1991-2009.

The iPod was introduced in 2001, saw sells start to fall off a cliff around 2009 and were all discontinued in 2017 - except for the iPod in name only iPod Touch. No one would say that the iPod was a failure. Encarta helped start the multimedia PC boom that helped make home computers more ubiquitous just like the iPod was Apple’s introduction to a wider audience.

Calling the iPad touch an iPad in name only is disingenuous. It’s 1/2 the price of the original and has more space etc. As to falling off a cliff, they sold significantly more iPods in 09, 10, and 11 than 06. They even sold more than 3x as many iPods in 2014 than 2004.

Apples watch is still a watch even if it does a lot of other things. Microsoft never ported Encarta functionality to anything after 09, it just died.

2008 was peak iPod and they started declining after that.


Note FYQ1 is calendar quarter 4.

As a brand sure, but the iPhone has been a fair replacement for many people. I mean digital camera sales have dropped 84% since 2010, but if anything people are taking far more photos now.

For most people cellphones have mostly replaced watches, digital cameras, keychain flashlights, and MP3 players not because they are awesome at it but because having slightly better but largely redundant devices is not worth it. https://www.statista.com/chart/5782/digital-camera-shipments...

I agree, and that’s kind of my point. Microsoft didn’t abandon Encarta because of corporate stupidity. It’s time had passed.

The iPod’s time had passed and the iPod Touch could just as well be called an iPad Nano. It’s more of an iPad than iPod.

I see it as a Free Vs Paid Model, Wiki is Free, and it is good enough for most use cases. Encarta had a lot of licensing, and I doubt any of that will ever be free, but the quality of those articles inside Encarta or Britannica in many ways are still way ahead of Wiki.

I think it goes even beyond paid vs free; the wiki model of knowledgeable, caring volunteers doing all this work for free seemed pretty crazy to all but a very few. Curated collections like Encarta and encyclopedias also tended to have very cursory entries for all but the broadest and market-focused topics. IMO a biased article is better than no information at all. In the very least it gives us a starting point for discovery, discussion and improvement. Most of what we today take for granted started with a pretty one-sided viewpoint that gained attention and inclusiveness.

Way back when, I yielded to temptation, as comrade Oscar advised, and at a fair bought a sealed Britannica CD-ROM box.

It came with a parallel port dongle -not mentioned in the box copy- to ensure that the precious was not shared.

It did not work right, and I was cured of buying that stuff.

I appreciated this article. I agree that "Microsoft was never in it for the history."

Not to sound cynical, but I believe MSFT wasn't trying to sell encyclopedias, they were trying to sell CD-ROM drives.

The upcoming Windows 93 (whoops, we slipped a little, make that 95) was going to require a billion floppy disks for distribution. Retail products were shipping in large boxes with comically tall stacks of expensive floppy disks.

CD-ROMs, on the other hand, are so cheap to distribute that AOL mailed them out as unsolicited junk mail.

It was worth sinking some money into a bunch of high-quality CD-ROM titles to get those drives standard on all PCs. Once that task was accomplished....

> I think Microsoft had the right idea—it was the killer app for CD-ROMs—though it turned out that the internet would only make it a temporary success story.

It was a killer app for CD-ROM, but for the title of the killer app I'd say DeLorme's "Street Atlas USA" had at least an equal claim.

I would almost say the -the- killer app for CD-ROM was Myst. I know I bought my second PC in 1994 (an Acer 486 DX2-50 with Vesa Local Bus graphics and a CD-ROM drive) just so I could play it (my previous machines as an adult were both Amigas).

You may be wondering why I say "second PC" - well, just before graduating high school my parents bought me a laptop, a Tandy 1100HD - which was technically my first PC. Later, after I had left home on my own, I bought an Amiga 2000, then an Amiga 1200, before getting the 486.

... not quite equal, Encarta was useful in more places than just the US.

> Encarta is a great example of Microsoft winning a market, and after it was defeated, letting it fade out.

Felt the same way with IE until Mozilla came along after Netscape died.

Is Encarta open source? Microsoft might be open to allowing it to be integrated into Wikipedia.

I had Encarta '97 as an 11yo, purchased at a Malaysian street vendor market for probably all of 3 bucks. It felt incredible to have that much knowledge available for almost no money. And it wasn't just boring text like the paper versions, there were videos too!

There was point in time where that truly felt like the future. Considering that we're now in the age of autoplaying, monetized "content" video nearly everywhere you go, it was nice to have only "primary source" video, aka stuff like the moon landing, or the MLK speech, instead of some nobody warbling on about its importance while splicing in stills of said video because they don't want to be in violation of the copyright.

The concept of finite, structured and bounded content is also extremely powerful in this era of overwhelming data, much of which rehashed and warmed over by various publications not to mention utterly infested with ads.

The concept of spending hours down a Wikipedia rabbit hole is not new, and it's one of the reasons I donate annually. But it first started with Encarta, and it's offline-only format has grown to be only more valuable as time goes on.

Pretty much same experience but in Argentina. I got Encarta 97 or 98 for 5 pesos, 5 dollars at that time, when I was 11 years old. Later I read about a Visual Basic course in a newspaper so I figured out that the way to build software was using this Visual Basic software. So I went to the same place where I bought Encarta and got Visual Basic 5, which was my first programming language.

I've had a similar Encarta experience as you and the GP.

Even the VB5 bit is identical. Bought a 2-3$ Encarta copy from a random guy in a random store selling pirated CDs. I remember the guy sitting in his small shop, downloading stuff over Torrent and burning them to CDs. He had a machine with the most CD-writers I had ever seen in my life.

I loved flying over terrains in Encarta's terrain explorer (or whatever it was called, I didn't really understand English back then, perhaps even learned it through Visual Studio and Encarta). Whenever I was bored and kids do get bored often, I would get on Encarta, especially since Wikipedia wasn't a thing back then.

I'm guessing you were only able to access Encarta because copyright enforcement wasn't strong here in Argentina? (Or was US$5 the Microsoft official price?) What do you think about my comment on Kiwix and Wikipedia at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20741101?

Software piracy wasn't on anyone's radar at the time.

Bill Gates wrote the "open letter to hobbyists" in 1976, when software "piracy" wasn't even clearly illegal, because it wasn't clear that software was copyrightable. We're talking about 1998, 22 years later. It had been on Microsoft's radar since 1976. 1998 was in the heyday of the SPA and "Don't copy that floppy!", as if sharing information were a morally suspect thing to do.

The USTR Special 301 Report already existed in 1998 and already singled out countries for possible trade sanctions for doing the kinds of things that permitted the US to develop economically in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I don't know if Argentina was already specifically targeted, though it was in later years, especially due to La Salada (Q.E.P.D.).

Encarta 97 is the first Microsoft product I ever bought. But I hassled my father to pay for the whole 99$.

Pretty sure the hours-long rabbit hole thing didn’t start with Encarta :D But you still would have been considered a geek of the highest order doing it with Encarta. Wiki first popularized the experience.

The deepest rabbit hole I tend to find is tvtropes.

Start at https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DownTheRabbitHol... and before I know it time has gone.

Tvtropes should come with a warning

I actually used to have a custom TVTropes Greasemonkey script, that would disable all the links on a TVTropes article. That way I could read it if someone linked an article through a forum or other, but I couldn't go down the rabbit hole. Super simple, little overkill, worked great as a deterrent/speed bump.

The thing about Encarta to me is that it felt so much more interactive than what we have today.

Nowadays we read a Wikipedia article or watch a Youtube video on a topic but never interact with the content. It's all very passive. I was a child during the heyday of Encarta and I remember I had it and a few other specialized encyclopedias (one about animals, one about sea life, one about dinosaurs!!) and they were all interactive. I miss this about computers. Not all things have to be a game or passive which is what I see nowadays when a child has a screen in front of their face.

I never mess interactivity when browsing Wikipedia. I love that WP is text-based, so that I can read it in my own preferred tempo. I rarely watch videos since to me they always feel too slow compared to reading text. I understand on an intellectual level that Youtube is a great platform that provide lots of value and entertainment to lots of people, but I never feel that greatness since it’s not something that I personally appreciate. Oh well, to each their own :)

There is value in "all" information being text. However there's also value in having interactive elements. From the contextual fitting video to i.e. an embedded star map: Imagine reading the article about a solar eclipse and being able to navigate a 3D model of the stars. Imagine reading an article about the human body and having a 3D model right next to it: If you click on "heart" in the text it's being highlighted in the model.

Of course Encarta wasn't there, but we have 20 years of technological advance. But for hobbyist Wikipedia authors that's too much work and for a commercial Encarta Wikipedia is too strong.

How close was Encarta to that? I never used it.

It had some simple interactive elements. Boring from today's perspective. Exciting back then.


Can you describe the ones you most remember? I see the image but I'm more interested in your (memory of your) subjective experience. What level of creative freedom did you have in the interactivity?

The most vivid memory I have of myself spending hours on Encarta as a child was with their "flight simulator" / bird's eye view. I will try to find a video of it but I am sure it will be disappointing in today's standards as well.

Best example I could find: https://youtu.be/Dl36Ty2PqMU?t=1147

Like Google Earth? I'll check that video out when I have more bandwidth, thanks!

I’m the same way. Video is such a slow mechanism for consuming information, so unless it’s primary material to bear witness to something, it’s usually just a lot of overhead - slow talking intros, context setting, bias, association, etc.

My memories with Encarta aren’t that special - the searching was cool but I think I was jaded to the cdrom video thing already, wishing it could be better technically. Definitely gave you a sense of what could be possible with an endless source of material, irrespective of copyright.

...and in many cases, sufficient filler to tip the video over the 10 minute mark so that more adverts can be shown during it. Don't forget to like and subscribe!

I was randomly looking up prehistoric musical instruments the other day and I couldn't help but want to see the instruments and watch a video of them being played. It was not available on Wikipedia.

The one place where I found videos were hugely better was blender tutorial videos. The program has countless features and shortcuts and is hugely visual. The video just helps you capture as much of that information as possible as well as showing you the typical workflow of a pro.

What kinds of interactivity are you referring to? I didn't have Encarta. My comment at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20741101 is largely about how interactivity is missing from Wikipedia articles and Kiwix.

The period of time before the infiniteness of the internet but after CD-ROMs could pack lots of information was fascinating to grow up in. You had lots of curiosity but still limited access to information so you deeply explored stuff.

Add to that, something like Encarta was curated by opinionated editors (whether or not you agree with them is different from the fact that the nature of content is different when it isn't trying to find consensus amongst absolutely everyone) and did not survive based on advertising as most internet content does today.

That set of factors made for a very different world of reading than today.

This makes me think about when I used to go to the MacWorld convention in San Francisco as a kid in the early 90's. My mom would take me out of school every year to go (just for the expo hall, we didn't have enough money to actually go to the conference).

I was just overwhelmed by all the different software on offer, and would load up my bag with free samples and spec sheets for software I had no legitimate need for as a 10 year old, but I ate it all up. I would ride the BART home after, just pouring over my loot and being so excited to try the demos at home.

I went a few times after the internet took off, and it just wasn't the same. Who needs demos from an expo hall, when you can just download everything? There was nothing new to see at the hall, everything could be seen from your home just by visiting a url.

I love the world with the internet, but there certainly has been something lost.

Same for me with magazines. I’d read them cover to cover, even Computer Shopper which was mostly ads! It gave great breadth of knowledge and it was genuinely interesting because they had to be informative. I devoured them all. I miss that.

those ads in computer shopper where how you learned what was coming into your price bracket in the next 1-2 years. You saw an external 8x (!) speed CD burner and knew you'd be able to afford one within ~18 months.

This feeling has swept over me, too. We didn't fully realize it at the time, but it was the twilight of our culture being transmitted through "big", tangible products with a distinct publishing apparatus like those demo CDs, VHS tapes, books, newspapers, TV programs etc. Everything went online and became both more available and harder to appreciate - although the old stuff has never gone away entirely, it's just waiting for us to look up from the screen now and then.

>You had lots of curiosity but still limited access to information so you deeply explored stuff.

I was about to write this myself. Wikipedia has so much information that it’s easy to surf page to page, link out, etc, and end up having skimmed 50 articles and still not understand the thing you came to look at.

I was going to submit this earlier today, but I thought "nah, nobody else on HN is going to be old enough to remember Encarta" :)

I remember when our family first got Encarta, and I spent hour after hour reading and marvelling about how all this information could be so easily accessible! I think we had a 14k dial-up Internet connection at the time, and the web was barely getting started - I really had no idea how things would turn out!

Are you kidding me? The only way hearing the opening screen again[0] could evoke more warm fuzzy nostalgia with me is if at the end it would crossfade into Baba Yetu from Civ IV's main menu screen[1].

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fRX4R6MY4A

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5e0Qelqp-Cc

The MindMaze[1] music takes me back. I spent three-digits hours on that game as a little kid.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT-VbFcck6A

It shouldn't be that hard to build MindMaze on top of Wikipedia. I wonder if anyone's done it?

Although I do remember the hard geography questions very frequently just being "What is the county seat of (insert random US county)?"

Check out Wikimaze: http://wikimaze.appspot.com/

Though Encarta evokes a bit more of Civ VI Sogno di Volare to me, but I share the sentiment. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQYN2P3E06s

Besides Encarta, the mid 90s where also the time where I was first able to buy satellite imagery on CR-ROM for all of Germany from my collected lunch money and years before Microsoft's TerraServer changed the world, which itself was long before Google Maps took over.


Either way, Microsoft should bring back Encarta and hire Christopher Tin to compose something for the occasion ;)

Did anyone else play with the gravity simulations to try to send the moon flying around like crazy?

Are you kidding me? Encarta was the bomb. As a kid, in the days before the computer was an endless source of information and distraction, I would just browse Encarta and learn random stuff.

Once some kid in my third grade class asked why race cars made noise they do when they passed, the teacher didn't give a satisfactory answer, and I was able to explain the Doppler effect to them based on animation I watched on Encarta.

Good stuff.

Given that Encarta was the bomb in the late 90's and early 00's and the 25-35 age group is well represented on HN I'd say Encarta i prime HN nostalgia material.

TBH, didn't realise it was still a thing in the early 00's!

It was the encyclopedia until Wikipedia really gained traction, which was 2004-ish for me.

Oh no, I've been looking for "modern Encarta" for years, in particular something that would easily show me different regions coloured by statistics and criteria - the ability to pick part of the earth, and then colour selected regions by economy, or productivity, or politics, or whatever, was phenomenal. Tablets _should_ be such a natural device for an educational geography product; but with free Google Maps + Wikipedia, nobody seems to be trying (at least I cannot find anything useful in my once-yearly attempts).

CIA World Factbook is fairly close from a data perspective but not super user friendly or polished:


(Enable Flash to make it slightly less cumbersome)

This is something I plan to work on after getting my PhD in a few years. It's technically challenging, but there is so much things to do pedagogically around historical & linguistics maps on the globe.

Isn't GapMinder sort of what you're looking for? https://www.gapminder.org/tools/

I am 24 and very much remember it! Simpler days!

26 here... I think Encarta was one of the first CD-ROMS we owned (Compton was later, er, acquired surreptitiously).

I still remember the joy I had researching the Stegosaurus and the Platypus between my local library and my copy of Encarta for a school project <3.

I remember a period where Compton's was coming bundled with a lot of CD-ROM drives, but Encarta felt so much better. We'd have multiple copies of Compton's floating around and would have to struggle to find that valuable Encarta CD.

Oh I remember it well and fondly!

There was all of one or two internet providers in our county where I grew up at that time. Maybe one. We couldn’t afford it yet but my parents bought Encarta because it seemed like a wholesome tract for computer use.

I spent countless hours on there and used it for a ton of homework. IIRC my parents used it all the time as well. They likely still have the disks kicking around someplace.

22 here and I remember Encarta very fondly. I did not use it very often as back then paperback encyclopedias were still a "thing" and Wikipedia was pretty ok too; but I definitely reading about random physicists in Encarta. It was fun!

Huh, I'm almost 40, really didn't realise Encarta had still a thing for people who are now in their early 20's!

Well, we're talking about mid to late 2000s (~15 years ago). Remember that Encarta was supported until 2009. And I grew up in a developing country so everything was happening with a few years lag.

I'm 22 in the UK and remember Encarta fondly.

Consider sharing this sort of content anyway! Even for younger audiences, it's really cool to be exposed to new-to-you things.

I would also add that I miss Microsoft Cinemania (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Cinemania), which was to IMDB what Encarta was to Wikipedia.

The sad bit is that in some ways Cinemania in 1997 was superior to IMDB as it is today. IMDB is more comprehensive, but Cinemania was better designed and more fun to just browse through.

I came here looking for someone to have mentioned Cinemania— it's crazy to me that Cinemania '97 is now 22 years old. Even a classic like The Matrix is too new to have been part of it.

But yeah, it was a terrific resource; if nothing else it solidified Roger Ebert for young me as a source of truth on movies. :)

I have the one on musical instruments: https://archive.org/details/microsoft-musical-instruments. Spend hours in it even if I wasn't that interested by music.

I didn't even know that had existed! MS really did have a fascinating CD-ROM portfolio back in the day.

Yeah, I remember some of the historic reviews from Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert in it being incredibly informative. Particularly where they had good video excerpts of the reviews from their respective syndicated television review segments. (Remember when TV News used to have regular movie reviews? It's almost strange how in the 24/7 news channel era we've lost more types of segments than we've gained.)

That was definitely a strong point of Cinemania -- it integrated a bunch of different types of information about a movie (plot description, cast list, video and still images, reviews of it by respected critics, etc.) into a cohesive, unified interface.

Contrast this to IMDB, which has some but not all of that information (no reviews, for instance), and what it does have is presented in a clunky, siloed fashion. It works, but it's not something that's absorbing to just browse through the way Cinemania was.

I thought I was going to be the first to mention Cinemania but it seems you beat me to it! It was a major influence on how I found great/classic movies to watch. It was really informative and just overall a pretty great piece of software for the time. I distinctly remember discovering Silence of the Lambs on Cinemania and they had a clip of the famous "...ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti" scene and one or two other clips from that film and I knew I had to watch the movie. Really interesting product, for sure.

I miss it as well, as the author points out it isn't large and is easily contained on a thumbnail flash drive (several times over!).

I've started creating an offline reference library[1] because I see that search engines will be over whelmed with crap and frankly I don't want to have to find cell service to ask my handheld device to locate a factoid.

If you've read that now more than 50% of Google desktop searches don't result in a click, it is because Google is getting better at 'one boxing' the answer so you don't need to click through to read it.

[1] That project started by digitizing my referenced by less often used text books. Which lead to me digitizing text books for others as well. After Google's win on digitizing books is fair use for air cover much of the work applies NLP and a bit of machine learning to pull out facts which are not, in themselves copyrightable.

[2] "Google Wins Copyright Suit" --- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/04/18...

This sounds amazing. I know it’s a personal project, but you should seriously share it with more people at some point.

The idea came from the fact that I wanted to play with the NLP work and wanted more useful data sets to start from (parsing Shakespeare gets old :-). And the fact that my fairly simple search engine for PDFs was basically just a classic n-tuple index into the word clouds minus stop words and gave good recall (like the old AltaVista) but not good precision.

Another comment in this thread about having a tablet to do that suggests an interesting way to deploy something like this on inexpensive table hardware with a somewhat more bespoke (aka performant) OS and application architecture for appliance type operation. (think running a unikernel rather than a general purpose kernel in order to not spend cycles on things you won't ever need)

What technique are you using to digitize these books? I'd be interested in digitizing a few books I have.

I have a Fujitsu Scansnap 1500 and a heavy duty paper guillotine (basically a very sharp, very tall blade, kind of like this one on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/HFS-Heavy-Guillotine-Paper-Cutter/dp/...). The ScanSnap came with a license to Abbyy's OCR software (which is good for words but it makes for interesting jumbles when you have tables and of course no math recognition). And the Foxit PDF editor version.

Since most of the text books I've scanned are hard covers I cut off the covers, scan those on flatbed scanner, then disassemble the binding to remove the pages. Cut off the margins to get to something closer to 8.5" wide (more modern text books have been "experimenting" with page sizes).

Disassembly takes about 20 minutes, scanning takes another, 10 minutes depending on how many sets I need to scan (the paper feeder for the ScanSnap is nominally 75 pages, but if it gets overloaded can misfeed). Occasionally I'll get a misfeed (two pages feed at the same time) and I generally clean the paper handling belts every 10 or 15 books because they get accumulation that make them less effective at gripping the paper.

Ah, I should have guessed it would be a destructive process. Still something I'll keep in mind but I have a particular weakness about destroying old books, even if intellectually I understand 1) it's not a valuable book and 2) there are other copies out there and 3) it's worth more to me in PDF form.

Non-destructive scanning is very much an option, but it's slower, more expensive and requires a bulky rig. It's probably only worth the effort if you're a serious data hoarder.

If you have a handful of precious books that you really can't bear to cut up, commercial non-destructive scanning services are available at ~$30 per book.



Only $30? (No missing 0?) That's on average (assuming a range of novels to textbooks thay makes the average...) only doubling the book cost to get a copy in another format.

Not ideal (IMO buying the physical book should entitle you to a zero marginal cost PDF copy too, which some publishers do adhere to) but certainly better than I expected.

I completely understand that sentiment! I definitely have books that I keep because they are valuable to me both as a book and as the information they contain.

Textbooks, are by their nature, more 'conduits of information' than works of art. (TAOCP not withstanding). Also they get regularly re-issued in order to be resold to students so their knowledge is more widely dispersed than many books.

When I was at Google I visited the book scanning operation a couple of times and they had these machines that would photograph a page, dewarp, and some of them even turn the page (some required a person to turn the pages). While I would love to have such a capability, the only way I could justify it would be to have texts I needed to add to my data set that were not mine to destroy.

My work-around for this issue so far has been to find and buy a second copy of a book on the used market to digitize, best of both worlds for me in that situation.

The process used by the Internet Archive and Google for digitizing books is nondestructive; the Archive open-sourced the plans for their "Scribe" book-scanning machine, and others have made downloadable plans for laser-cuttable versions. It's slower than running a destroyed book through a sheeet-fed scanner (typically you get on the order of ten two-page scans per minute), but it's suitable even for rare books.

How do I get a peek into this world according to Chuck slice of cyberspace?

An interesting question that I have yet to have a good answer for. The fair use exemption was pretty good air cover for using the digitized data, but text book publishers are rather litigious bunch. Not a bear I want to poke just yet.

When you figure it out, please have my name at top of the beta users list.

There was a certain method of presenting information that just doesn't seem to exist anymore in the modern world. The by-design weaving together of text, images, video, and audio when giving information about a certain topic. Sure, wikipedia articles have one or two images, maybe an audio clip, and plenty of links to other text articles, but nothing like an encyclopedia or other informational software of the 90s. You'd have software about, say, dinosaurs, and there'd be big diagrams where every word was a link to a descriptive media. It feels like we've shrunk. You can watch a Youtube video but it's just a video; you can't pause it on a picture of a T-Rex and click on its mouth to learn about T-Rex teeth. The modern web forever has you finding any piece of information you need starting from zero, and most of the time you can't summon the energy to do that for everything you might find interesting.

Interactive multimedia is dead and I think today's children are worse off for it.

Video of the dino browsing experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgOZUPUGuwY

Exactly what I was thinking of, thank you.

One thing that commercial encyclopedias like Encarta can have that Wikipedia can’t is non-free content. Say you can buy the rights for 1000s of images from some source; you can use them in your private encyclopedia, but Wikipedia’s medias must be uploaded on Wikimedia Commons and for this must be under a CC-like license or in the public domain.

This is indeed an enormous problem, and a very significant reason we need to shorten copyright terms. When copyright terms were retroactively lengthened here in Argentina, we had to delete huge swaths of historical footage and photography from Wikipedia. Into the memory hole!

Wikimedia Commons is more relaxed about licensing than Wikipedia is for text — because most of the images on Wikipedia and allied projects are not and cannot be created specifically for Wikipedia, we have to tolerate a wider spread of licensing terms. However, the images do need to be licensed for use on Wikipedia, which is already a pretty permissive license.

See my comment at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20741101 for more social context.

Here in Poland Encarta is probably best remembered for its ridiculous entry on Poland, depicting it in a rather outdated manner, to put it mildly. It caused quite an uproar back in the day, and went sort of viral.

See http://of19.internetdsl.pl/bzdury/encarta/ (in Polish, but includes the screenshots in English, which are self-explanatory)

Seems about right.

Well, is not.

When I was a kid, my grandmother brought home a cardboard box with a 4-5 mis-matched volumes of encyclopedias in it. Always a bookworm, I could read an article about any subject in them and be content for hours.

You can imagine my joy when, omewhere around 1991 or 1992, we got a new computer in the library at school. It was a dedicated station for the encyclopedia, and it was even set up in the same location as the printed ones were.

My faded memory recalls it being Compton's Encyclopedia. It ran on an 286 IBM PS/2 (the all-in-one unit), and it had a mouse, external CD-ROM, and a laser printer. The rumor was that it cost $10,000. It wasn't fast, it probably took closed to a minute to search for, and then retrieve an article.

You're close! It was Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, which I started with as well. When I later saw Encarta, I thought Compton's was a superior product.

I miss it and I also miss a real encyclopedia collection. They both offer a thing Wikipedia always lacks: consistency, in writing style, in topic depth, in error rate. I still remember the weekend in 90s when I had a copy of Encarta and threw the whole weekend to click through topics after topics, and amazed at things it offered. It’s so much fun.

Encyclopedia's are interesting.

They had to pick and choose what to go into depth on, but when they wanted to go into depth, they would hire the best writers in the field to explain everything really well. Issac Asimov penned more than one encyclopedia article, as did other science fiction authors.

I honestly learned most of my fundamental science knowledge from old 1950s and 1960s science fact books. Asimov in particular has multiple books that explain science really well, down to the level of nuclear fusion and fission, biochemistry, and a lot of other subjects, and I had a few other books in the same vein that were all really old, and really good.

I remember one book that was biographies of famous scientists, it went into depth about Marie Curry and her contributions to science. Reading that ~age 10 certainly impacted my views on gender equality and helped me believe that potential is not limited by gender.

Wikipedia, for all the great things about it, won't really do that. There isn't a Wikipedia page I can point literally anyone[2] at and say "read this and you'll understand the fundamentals of radiation and atomic physics".

I am sure such resources are out there on the web, but the odds of stumbling upon those resources at random is less than the odds of coming across a good science book at random in a thrift store.

That said there are some awesome YT science channels who have worked to fill this gap in quite well, but video sources are different than written sources, with each having their strength. (I read that short 10 or so page biography of Marie Curry probably a half dozen times, not going to do that with a YT video!)

[2] Where anyone is defined as "age 10 and up, with no mathematical background, who wants to be entertained while they read."

I think if you start at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation you'll find everything you need. It's not all in a single linear article, but that's mostly a strength of the Wikipedia style.

That's the point, though. Having it curated and written by experts puts them in control of what direction you go. Realistically, I could click through the radiation article on wikipedia, and may be exposed to what I need to know, but I also could just wander down a rabbit hole of useless information.

That's the entire point. I'm not the expert. Nor am I able to even understand the basics of which direction to read/learn - that's what the expert curators are for.

>in error rate

I dont have source at moment. But I remember reading a few years ago that wikipedia had fewer errors than most all encyclopedias on average.

There is definitely something to be said about consistency and clustering but on average I believe wikipedia is still the best in fewest errors.

I think it's not error rate, but signal-to-noise ratio. Wikipedia has a lot of noise and is suitable for a critical reader. Old encyclopedias has less quantity but better quality. The whole situation mirrors the old curated internet vs. the new. We still haven't found a situation that is better in every respect between these two extremes.

Have you looked at Citizendium? It is the closest thing there is to a community curated encyclopedia.

Wikipedia could do a better job integrating media.

I remember Encarta being pretty good about having video files showing the outlines of wars and battles... at least for the Vietnam War which is what I remember most. I prefer watching a video outline of wars and battles on youtube rather than dig right into a wall of text on wikipedia.

I still remember using one of the earliest Encarta versions and seeing a tiny postage stamp sized video animate and play some half broken wav file for the first time. I remember it hitting me like a baseball bat: we can do VIDEOS on computers now! This will change everything! TV is going to die because there are no ads on computers!

Look on the bright side, you got two out of three right :D

Those were more innocent times, to be fair.

I spent a good five years online browsing the web before they decided to start adding advertising to everything. I never agreed to that switch in the contract.

Yes. Part of the problem is the CC license restriction of Wikipedia/Wikimedia. A lot of primary sources such as the ones Encarta included were often proprietary licensed and copyrighted products. According to Wikipedia's annual donation bars they (supposedly) spend enough on hosting costs every year that spending money on licensing media content is (probably) out of the question for them.

I almost wish for a sort of intellectual property "eminent domain" promoting more things like famous news footage into the public domain where they fit an "almanac" need. Though I admit creating any sort of such program would be really hard to do, as the boundaries would be murky and it potentially would impact the revenue of companies and groups that generally need such revenue to survive (PBS, for example).

Also things like the globe or the timeline mentioned in the article would be great to add to wikipedia. Being able to quickly pull up a timeline of battles mentioned on wikipedia that took place or involved a certain country could be neat. Similar things on the globe could illustrate a lot of things.

It's not reflected in OP's screenshot, but there was a period where Encarta (and a companion product called Microsoft Bookshelf) used a very flat, Swiss-design aesthetic that was catnip to graphic-designer-wanna-be kid me. You can draw a direct line from that era through Microsoft's Neptune UI experiments down to the Metro design language.

Here's a talk by Bill Flora who was a lead designer for many of the products along that line, from Encarta through to Windows Phone: https://vimeo.com/56764845

Odd anecdote, but my middle school had Encarta 2009 on all the computers and I spent a lot of time going through the historical location free roams finding bad geometry to glitch through walls.

I found out-of-bound clips in like 4 of them, and thought it was all very cool seeing all the level geometry and non-clearing graphics smearing across the screen. Probably contributed to my interest in computers and cybersecurity, ironically, no matter how much my teachers said it was a waste of time...

I worked on Encarta in the mid 90s. Here are a few tidbits you may or may not find interesting.

* The content was based on Funk & Wagnalls. Then we had a bunch of editors and writers cleaning up the content and adding new articles.

* The Windows version was always done first, then we ported to the Mac using "WLM" (Windows Library for Mac?).

* We used fractal compression for the images. If you never heard of this, look it up—pretty interesting. This was going to be all the rage, but then it wasn't.

* As a consumer product, Christmas sales were everything. Therefore, unlike most software, the schedule never slipped. There was a hard date for completion. Features would be cut to make the deadline, no matter what.

* When the web hit, we put professionally curated links into the articles. Best of both worlds. And you could get a subscription that would update articles and links monthly.

* We worked with WBUR to implement a brand-new closed captioning standard for videos.

* The codebase was ostensibly C++ and MFC, but it..was..complicated.

* Articles were edited in Word, with a bunch of custom macros, and exported to RTF. There was a lot more processing that went on after that to shove all that content onto the CD, but I wasn't too familiar with that part.

* Later versions occupied more than one CD. Swapping was a real pain, but if you had multiple CD-ROM drives, it would accommodate you.

I was just telling me wife a few weeks back about Microsoft Encarta. Turns out she had a copy too back in the day.

My best memory is getting a copy shortly after CD-ROM drives were still new territory. I loaded the disc and the first thing I searched for was either rap or hip/hop. To my delight an audio clip played of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message...keep in mind this was at a time when Multimedia was new and the idea that CD-ROMs could hold enough data to make a richer experience was ground-breaking!

I used to love encarta. The thing I remember most though were the entries on musical instruments from around the world. I remember being blown away by the different types of instruments and used to spent lots of time just clicking the interactive map and reading about them and listening to the different clips they had. That was where I first learned about and heard the difference between all the different types of bag pipes they have in different countries. Up until then, I only knew about the Scottish ones.

Holy moly I'd forgotten about that. Endless hours of clicking in the school library.

There's a few copies of Encarta lying around on Archive.org if anyone is interested in getting a copy:


"Where do YOU want to go today?"

Will never forget the awesome splash screen with various historic photos and the video clip with clouds(?), while/after it loaded content from the CD-ROM.

Edit: found it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTOAHlGaDoo

Edit 2: Okay the above was generic but I remember similar bits of it used for Encarta.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica in my house, that my Dad purchased in the early eighties. The set was amazing, and an endless help when researching homework.

Then I encountered the BBC's Domesday Project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Domesday_Project) and was blown away by the quantity of information that was available on a laser disk in my school library.

Then came Encarta, which similarly impressed, and now Wikipedia.

I can't even contemplate the quantity of information and in what form it will take, when my son reaches my age, but I bet it would blow my contemporary mind.

I'm either old enough or out-of-touch enough that I never used Encarta. Reading the comments here, I see a lot of mention of the interactive elements and video.

I generally prefer text - it's easier to search, and faster to consume. But I don't assume that my preferences are always best, so...

Why was Encarta so good? Why is it good enough that we should wish we had it today? Is there some analog today that could let me "get it"? Because currently I live in a world where more and more info is moving to podcasts and videos and I hate it. Clearly I'm missing something, so help me out?

You have to remember that this was during an era when the internet was not as common, so this was competing with physical books, not digital media. And the result was much more immersive than reading a book, and the internet was not yet mature enough to be an effective format for reading hypertext.

Additionally, consider that much the audience for it was people in grade school. If you were in the seventh grade in 1995, you were the perfect age to really engage with that kind of approach—which seemed awesome compared to a boring textbook.

I think in many ways, our information consumption has gotten much more dense over time. But in 1995, people would approach this like they would a nice, long magazine article. Efficiency was not the goal: It was something that hit all the senses.

> I generally prefer text

Encarta had text. It was mostly text. But sometimes text isn't the best medium for conveying some information. For example, maybe there's an article about lizards. You can describe the way a lizard moves, but it makes much more sense to have a video embedded that can show you what that movement looks like with all of its nuances that would be difficult to describe and understand in text.

So, think of wikipedia, but curated by professional library scientists and verified subject matter experts with first source video and audio clips (and photos) embedded where helpful.

> Why was Encarta so good?

Simply put: It was accessible, interactive and enabled users to find information at a pace that wasn't really achievable through other means.

I first used Encarta when I was in the 6th grade, in order to find information for an essay I was writing. The local library had just gotten a new PC with a CD-ROM drive, and the librarian suggested I use Encarta as it was brand new, while any books they had on the subject would be rather old and outdated.

I got down behind the PC, launched Encarta and I was simply blown away. This was my first real multi-media experience and while computers were becoming mainstream in the early 90's, I simply hadn't seen anything like it before. Sure, an Amiga could play music and simple videos, and a fast 486 could decode MPEG video, but hard drives back then were typically less than 100 MB and the amount of storage allowed by CD-ROM's allowed Encarta to be an (until then) unparalleled experience.

Remember, until then, you'd have to use card indexes in order to find the right book about the subject, then look for the book and hope nobody else had borrowed it. With Encarta, it was as simple as typing in a search term and finding the results. Instantly. Internet wasn't really a thing back then - I'd heard about it, it existed, but it didn't reach the general populace until around '94-'95, and there simply wasn't anything comparable until Wikipedia came along.

It also had a bunch of text that was easy to search. Imagine replacing a shelf full of encyclopedias (that cost a lot) with a single cd, AND it had some videos.

One of my favorite CD-ROMs from my childhood was an Encarta offshoot called Microsoft Exploropedia, World of Nature. Basically Encarta for natural sciences but tailored for kids. That game was the bomb.

There is an entire book on the creation of Explorapedia, I sing the body electronic: A year with Microsoft on the multimedia frontier by Fred Moody (my copy is ISBN 0-340-64927-5). It's fascinating for its insights not only on the messiness of the design process, but also the process and deadline constraints that the team were working under (which feel like a general rather than a specific set of lessons).

While I have heard good things about the book itself, it is tainted by the fact that Moody was its author. The man literally and viscerally hated Linux, and went to great lengths to paint it in as poor a light as he could -- and then seemed surprised when people took issue with that. [Note that I neither condone not participate in flaming, but the man's tone really necessitated entire asbestos wardrobes.] I was neither surprised nor saddened when he and his column parted ways.

Interesting. I haven't read his column, and that really isn't something I would have guessed from the book. It's nuanced on Microsoft as a company and pretty empathetic towards the people working on the project who are the characters in his story.

It was also bundled with the Microsoft EasyBall, the giant mouse with a yellow ball [1].

[1] https://www.microsoft.com/buxtoncollection/detail.aspx?id=22...

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