The localised hero
With the publication of the world English edition of its multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta 96, Microsoft claims centre-stage among popular CD-Rom encyclopedias.
Born of the New York firm of Funk and Wagnall, its original text was bought by Microsoft's Bill Gates as part of his expansion in home and educational software.
It is likely that, after its initial publication as the Encarta Multimedia Encyclopedia in 1993, Gates regretted that he and his advisers had ignored the warning of faults in their purchase.
Three editions on and with a massive dose of new genes in the form of multimedia and text written by distinguished contributors, Microsoft has created a product that is accused by the compilers of the Britannica, of being "no more than an alleged encyclopedia".
That this latest edition is an improvement on the 1995 American product is to the credit of its editors in the London office of Websters. Nevertheless, it bears signs of having been spliced together with undue haste, and entries which are only partially correct are not hard to find.
For example, Hitler's Mein Kampf is more of a political manifesto than an "autobiography", and to say that he was elected to power by the German people is not a wholly accurate description of his seizure of power. British cities no longer have polytechnics, but universities - and so on.
Schoolchildren who use features of the encyclopedia such as "Famous Paintings of the Modern Era" are in danger of being misled since, of all the paintings shown, not one is by the man who changed our perception of art for good: Pablo Picasso. And the entry on pre-history dismisses this popular and fascinating subject in 200 words.
One of its most publicised features, the Encarta Yearbook, is a monthly review of current events, available to users to the Microsoft Network or the World Wide Web. However, its coverage is anything but comprehensive: in a month that saw a new constitution, president and prime minister in Ethiopia, Encarta's only file on that country is "New nightjar discovered in Ethiopia".
Instead, Microsoft strengthens its invidious hold over us by offering more than 1,000 words of hard-sell on its own Windows 95 and promises that by buying into Microsoft Network, we too can share in its "client-server" market.
The encyclopedia contains a lyrical entry on Bill Gates and a further 500 words on Windows and the Microsoft Corporation (about the same as its article on the Third World). So much for the definition of "encyclopedia" as presenting an objective, rounded record of human knowledge.
Complaints by teachers that earlier versions of Encarta contained too much obscure vocabulary for classroom use remain valid for this edition. Which child in middle school would understand what the Ranters were up to when they "exhibited strong tendencies towards antinomianism"? Moreover, one of the greatest bonuses of electronic encyclopedias, the ability to jump in seconds from one entry to another to further illuminate a subject, is not exploited, and cross-references appear random and meaningless.
In short, Encarta 96, with all its box of delights, is a lively, intelligent, but erratic performer, keen to attract attention but not always able to live up to its promise.
* Microsoft - stands 231, 221