Sunday, May 3, 2009

Encyclopedias: from shoe leather to link love in 10 years

A NYT article last month about the death of Microsoft Encarta is followed by one today that discusses the issue a bit more. All the obviouis stuff about free web content killing an old business model is in here. Not really news, just kinda interesting in terms of the particulars.

Like, f'rinstance, that in 1994, when Microsoft dropped the price of Encarta to $99, Britannica's first cd-rom encylopedia was going for $995. Microsoft had tried to do a deal with Britannica, and some of the other encyclopedeia giants, but the "...conventional wisdom in the encyclopedia business held that a sales force that knocked on doors was indispensable, that encyclopedias were 'sold, not bought.'"

That line really struck me. My family paid close to a grand for the Compton's home encylopedia when I was a kid. When your mom's parents are a high-school principle and a librarian, that's a no-brainer. That was in 1970's dollars and, I assume, spread across several years-worth of payments. I used the crap out of that encylopedia for close to 20 years, from the early 70's through the late 80's, even when I was in college. It was a good deal, and I have nothing but fond memories of using the set... except for, of course, when it didn't have what I needed. But that's the way it goes with everything-that-isn't-the-Web.

So the idea of paying $1,000-ish for a computerized encylopedia doesn't seem unreal, right? I mean, if you're thinking inside that box. A family in 1985 will pay $1,000 for a print encylopedia so that Chip and Missy will have access to all that good stuff. Their folks have a computer with a CD-ROM, so why wouldn't they pay a similar price for a much more easily searched, multimedia chunk of educational goodness?

Well... in 1985 they might have, but only a few people had PC's with a CD-ROM. That was the year they were introduced. Most of us were still chunking away on machines with 5.25" single-density floppy drives. I was a giant geek, and I didn't own a PC with a CD-ROM drive until around 1994. You know... they year Britannica decided to charge $1,000 for their CD deal-i-o.

I remember looking at the Encarta CD-ROM at Microcenter for $100 or so back then and thinking, "If I had kids, I'd definitely get that." A lot of other people felt that way, too. According to the NYT article, Microsoft sold 350,000 units at $99.

Problem is... how often do you buy a new encyclopedia? Right. Never. It's a one time thing you get for your kids. Maybe (as in the case of the Comptons set we had), you can opt for a yearly update. But if you bought Encarta so that 7-year old Missy could learn about plankton and volcanoes and Greek mythology... well, you don't need to do that again, two years later, when Chip turns seven.

Except that by the time Chip turned seven, it was 1996. And from there, you could see the Web. We hadn't had the tech bubble yet, but we understood that something major was going on. And by 1999, when you thought, "I might as well give this Encarta CD-ROM to my brother, since his kids are now in grade school..." Well, your nephew was looking up volcanoes online.

I remember seeing a set of CD-ROMs (like 30 or so) that contained every issue of "National Geographic" ever. Ads and all. It was at Barnes and Noble and went for around $300. I remember thinking, "When that hits $100, I might get it." Next time I saw it, it was in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart for $39.95.

NatGeo has turned its brand around, and is now doing great TV shows and videos. Britannica? Not so much.

"How much is a great education for your child worth?" I imagine the Compton's salesman asking. The answer of course is, "Priceless." And that's still the answer. The answer to the question, "What would you pay to guarantee a step-up for your kid in school?" has changed a bit, eh?

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