Microsoft's recent announcement that Encarta will be free online until the end of May means that the three best multimedia encyclopedias are now available, free, on the Web. Encyclopedia Britannica launched its online version last December and World Book is offering a month's free trial of WB online.
The Internet versions of all three differ significantly from their CD-Rom siblings. Neither Encarta nor World Book, for instance, includes a dictionary, and Britannica opts for the Merrian-Webster lexicon rather than the far superior Oxford English Dictionary that graces the CD and digital versatile disc (DVD). Articles contain considerably fewer hypertext links, and many of the 360-degree wraparound views cannot be accessed. Online interfaces are more streamlined, which will be a boon for younger users who can be confused by the multiple choice format of the CD navigation screens. Entering text into a prominent query box will bring up the relevant articles. Encarta offers the user three categories; "Zimbabwe", for example, will yield articles on Zanu and the Zimbabwe dollar - both from the encyclopedia - and the option of a further search for news articles or related Web sites. The news articles are drawn from Microsoft's own MSNBC teevision news network.
Britannica spreads its search results in column style across the page, not the most helpful of presentations. Thankfully, the advertising and sponsorship logos which presumably fund this excellent free service are discreet. Additionally, the EB site contains the complete and unabridged version of what is, still, a highly respected encyclopedia.
Latha Menon, editor of the UK Encarta Encyclopedia Suite, suggests that the online encylopedia maintains "continuity of experience" with the CD. Both forms, after all, offer the user a common structure with largely the same content. As students and teachers become ever more sophisticated in information-gathering they will navigate and use the various hybrid media with ease. And as Internet access becomes cheaper and faster and more educational content finds its way on to the Web, these online services could herald a trend that may eventually consign the multimedia CD or DVD to the redundant stock cupboard.
For free access to Encarta World English online edition until the end of May: http:encarta.msn.co.uk
For one month's free subscription to World Book 2000 online: www.worldbookonline.com
For unlimited free subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online: www.britannica.com
For unlimited free subscription to Encarta Online Dictionary, US edition: www.encarta.com
the UK Encarta edition will be launched later this year