Microsoft Embraces the Web - Encarta Premium 2006
Microsoft was long derided by its critics for having failed to fully grasp the Internet revolution. It was late in developing Net technologies such as a proprietary search engine and in coping with security threats propagated through the Web. Not any more. Earlier this year MSN rolled out a great search engine and now Microsoft has fundamentally revamped its reference products. By committing itself to this overhaul, Microsoft embraced reality: nine out of ten children (between the ages of 5 and 17) use computers (USA figures) - and 85% of these get their information online. The Microsoft Encarta Premium 2006 is a breathtaking resource.
It caters effectively (and, at $50, affordably) to the educational needs of everyone in the family, from children as young as 7 or 8 years old to adults who seek concise answers to their queries. It is fun-filled, interactive, and colorful. The 2006 Encarta's User Interface is far less cluttered than in previous editions. Content is arranged by topics and then by relevancy and medium. Add to this the Encarta's Visual Browser and you get only relevant data in response to your queries.
The Encarta Search Bar, which was integrated into the product two years ago, and is resident in the Task Pane even when Encarta is closed, enables users to search any part of the Encarta application (encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, etc). The Encarta's new Web Companion is a (giant) step in the right direction. It obtains search results from all the major search engines without launching any additional applications (like a browser). Content from both the Encarta and the Web is presented side by side. This augmentation explicitly adopts the Internet and incorporates it as an important source of reference. It may raise important and interesting issues of intellectual property, though. Web content copyright-holders may demand royalties from Microsoft for the use it makes of their wares in its commercial products. Encarta would do well to also integrate with new desktop search tools from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others. Users should be able to seamlessly access content from all over - their desktop, their encyclopedias, and the Web - using a single, intuitive interface. The Encarta Premium includes a dictionary, thesaurus, chart maker, searchable index of quotations, games, 32 Discovery Channel videos, 25,000 photos and illustrations, 2800 sound and audio clips, hundreds of maps and tables, and 400 videos and animations.
It incorporates numerous third-party texts and visuals (including hundreds of newspaper articles and a plethora of Scientific American features). The Encarta is augmented by weekly or bi-weekly updates and the feature-rich online MSN Encarta Premium with its Homework Help offerings. Unfortunately, the Encarta still conditions some of its functions - notably its research tools and updates - on registration with its Plus Club. The Encarta is the most comprehensive, PC-orientated reference experience there is. No wonder it has an all-pervasive hold on and ubiquitous penetration of the child-to-young adult markets. Particularly enchanting is the Encarta Kids interface - an area replete with interactive quizzes, pictures, large icons, hundreds of articles, and links to the full version of the Encarta. A veritable and colorful sandbox. Those kids are going to get addicted to the Encarta, that's for sure! Encarta actively encourages fun-filled browsing. It is a riot of colors, sidebars, videos, audio clips, photos, embedded links, literature, Web resources, and quizzes. It is a product of the age of mass communication, a desktop extension of television and the Internet.
Inevitably, in such a mammoth undertaking, not everything is peachy. A few gripes: Regrettably, installation is not as easy as before. The Encarta 2006 makes use of Microsoft's .Net technology. As most home computers lack it, the installer insists on adding it to the anyhow bloated Windows Operating System. There is worse to come: the .Net version installed by Encarta 2006 is plagued with security holes and vulnerabilities. Users have to download service packs and patches from Windows Update if they do not wish to run the risk of having their computers compromised by hackers. Fully installed, the Encarta Premium 2006 gobbles up more than 3.5 Gb.
That's a lot - even in an age of ever cheaper storage. Most homesteads still sport PCs with 20-40 Gb hard disks. This makes the Encarta less suitable for installation on older PCs and on many laptops. Despite the hype, relatively few users possess DVD drives (but those who do, find the entire encyclopedia available on one DVD). The Encarta DVD 3-D tours have improved but they still hog computer resources and are essentially non-interactive. Is it worth the investment and the risk to the stability and performance of the user's computer? The Encarta tries to cater to the needs of challenged users, such as the visually-impaired - but is still far from doing a good job of it. The atlas, dictionary, and thesaurus incorporated in the Encarta are outdated. Why not use a more current - and dynamically updated - offering? What about dictionaries for specialty terms (medical or computer glossaries, for instance)? The Encarta's New English Dictionary dropped a glossary of computer terms it used to include back in 2001. All's the pity.