Microsoft challenges Wikipedia with Encarta giveaway

While unveiling its new search technology last Monday, Microsoft not only took aim at its competition among other search engines. It also made a move with significant implications for Wikipedia by promoting the fact that it would offer Encarta content free along with its search results.

This marked a significant expansion of freely available encyclopedia content from Encarta, which previously offered only a limited selection of articles for free. Until now, premium content from Encarta had been limited to subscribers, with Microsoft charging $4.95 per month or $29.95 annually for the service. Some Encarta tools, such as homework help and some maps, will remain limited to subscribers.

Although Microsoft plugged the incorporation of Encarta content into its search engine as an innovation, it follows several others that have already used encyclopedia content from Wikipedia to enhance their search results. Wikipedia was included in Yahoo!'s Content Acquisition Program unveiled last March, and has been featured prominently in search results from Clusty since it released its beta in September.

Recently, Clusty has even added a new feature to its search results by providing thumbnails of Wikipedia images when available, a fact covered by Mark Hall of Computerworld in a notes column last Monday. And while Google makes less of an effort to boost the prominence of encyclopedia content in its search results, it recently switched its "definitions" results over from Dictionary.com to Answers.com, a service that provides not only dictionary definitions but encyclopedia content, both from Wikipedia and the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Encyclopedia wars

As Microsoft has done on numerous occasions previously, such as the browser wars, it is trying to attract customers and build loyalty by giving away some of its product. Use of Encarta for free through MSN Search is limited, however, to two hours, as shown by a clock counting down the time while you view the page. And if this is a deliberate strategy to compete with Wikipedia, it may not have the same effect as Microsoft's efforts against commercial competitors, since Wikipedia is also given away free.

Media coverage of the MSN Search launch frequently turned to Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research, as an outside source to endorse the idea that incorporating Encarta into search was a big advantage for Microsoft. (Note: Forrester has published several controversial studies touting Microsoft products compared with Linux.) A Seattle Times article quoted Li as follows: "Here is this objective, fact-based information that you need," she said, "It's really hard to find that objective point of view" online.

When the launch of MSN Search was posted on Slashdot, the first post promptly brought up the comparison between Encarta and Wikipedia, asking, "should one use non-free but objective Encarta or free but biased Wikipedia?" This brought a rebuttal from Fennec, who pointed out Wikipedia's neutral point of view policy. A number of comments followed debating the relative biases of the two encyclopedias.

Whether Microsoft will keep Encarta free of charge in the long run, or take other action to challenge Wikipedia, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, easier access to Encarta will give Wikipedians another handy place to check their facts when editing.

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