Thursday, March 15, 2012

Britannica is gone -- Grolier struck the first blow

The New York Times announced that after 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Wow, I guess it was inevitable and it probably does not mean much to young folks today, but there was a time when every school and library and many middle class homes had copies of the Britannica.

I guess the handwriting was on the wall in the early 1980s, when Grolier, a less prestigous competitor, began offering subscirptions to a text version of their encylopedia through online services Compuserve, Dow Jones, and the New York Times Information Bank.

Grolier's next move was a CD-ROM version, which was developed by Gary Kildall, the creator of CP/M, the mainstream PC operating system before MS DOS. Here's a picture of Gary and the encyclopedia.

Kildall showed the encyclopedia at the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show and it went on sale the following year. The first edition was text only, with 9 million words and 30,000 entries. It was updated quarterly and pictures were added in 1990.

A CD-ROM was faster than Compuserve, but a CD-ROM drive was around $500 in those days. Philips offered a bundle of one of their CD-ROM drives and the encyclopedia. Grolier kept at it for a while, and Microsoft entered the market with their own multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia, Encarta.

Neither of them was a blockbuster, and the Web and Wikipedia finished them off. (I have compiled a collection of Wikipedia evaluations, including a well-known comparison to Britannica that was published by Nature).

Now the Net has zapped Britannica too. It brings back nostalgic memories of Britannica set on my bookshelf and the time I was lucky to have spent with Gary Kildall back in those heady days of CP/M and CD-ROMs.