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Home > Business > Special

Can Britannica & Encarta beat Wikipedia?

Priyanka Joshi in New Delhi | September 13, 2006

Here's a wager: a tennis fan trying to find out the highest a smashed ball has ever bounced on a hard court will head straight for the Internet.

If that's obvious, here's another bet: a student trying to find the origins of probability theory and its early applications will probably also hit the Internet.

Don't get us wrong. The venerable old stack of bound volumes called "the encyclopedia" does have a future, even if mostly as a shelf adornment. It's just that all the world's recorded knowledge is fast turning digital.

Sensibly, Britannica and other knowledge brands have put their material online, even as Microsoft markets its Encarta digital encyclopedia. Both have DVD packs for easy-click computer reference.

Encarta Premium 2007 retails at Rs 3,999, though lighter versions sell for Rs 1,999 and Rs 1,299. "Microsoft Encarta has more than 60,000 articles, an interactive atlas, dictionaries, a thesaurus, current and back issues of 100 leading magazines, homework tools, daily math help, and a strong online support from the Microsoft reference library," boasts Mohit Anand, country manager, entertainment and devices division, Microsoft India.

Encyclopedia Britannica sells a single-disc DVD Ultimate Reference Suite that contains a student library, elementary library, general reference library and the Britannica Brainstormer.

"With more than 1,00,000 articles and 800 audio and video clips, users have access to a range of content, updated to the end of last year. There are plenty of learning games and links to some 1,65,000 websites selected by Britannica's editors," claims Britannica's website. Its DVDs are available in a range from Rs 3,220 to Rs 5,750, and its online
subscription is for Rs 5,520.

"Britannica provides considerably more text," admits Microsoft's Anand, but adds that "we have made our application more interactive and visually appealing."

Yet, even as Britannica and Encarta slug it out, the most popular reference library amongst youngsters is Wikipedia (unless you count Google, which is just a search engine).

Wikipedia is free. Is it trustworthy? You decide. Literally. It operates on an "open source" model. Even its information is open to editing � on the assumption that a cyber-population consensus will eventually come to yield the truth. Or, as more and more people log on, at least an acceptable approximation of it.

To Wikipedia fans, its very openness is an advantage. It is a revolution of knowledge democratisation. To its rivals, that's precisely the problem - it is mob knowledge, at best. Anand sees Wikipedia's lack of accountability as a huge vulnerability.

"While Microsoft and Britannica spend millions on reference books, hire expert scholars to write articles and employ skilled editors to check and double-check their work," he says, "Wikipedia's articles can be written by anyone who fancies himself an expert."

Given its 13,70,020 articles and another half-million pages written in dozens of other languages (including Malay, Swahili and Frisian), it's virtually impossible to give it a reliability certificate.

Anyhow, Wikipedia sure is fun to look up. And all "truth" in the human head, some argue, is something of an approximation anyway. This makes Wikipedia a unique brand.

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