Over the last few weeks, two major encyclopedias announced the end of print production. First, Brockhaus, the most popular commercial German encyclopedia, announced that the current (21st) edition would likely be its last print edition. Then, last week, the annual French encyclopedia Quid announced the cancellation of a 2008 edition. Both encyclopedias mentioned Wikipedia in their announcements.
On February 13, Deutsche Welle reported that Brockhaus would place the encyclopedia on the Internet, as a free, ad-supported internet-based encyclopedia. The portal is expected to launch on April 15. An ad-free service would be provided to German schools, though it is not clear whether this product would be free to schools or fee-based.
The 21st edition of the Brockhaus encyclopedia had disappointing sales, due to the rising influence of Internet reference sites, including the German Wikipedia, which Deutsche Welle mentioned specifically as "[having] been seen as cutting into Brockhaus' profits." A company spokesperson indicated that with official figures yet to be finalized, the company is expecting 2007 losses of several million euros. The company may cut about 50 jobs in order to reduce costs.
The spokesperson argued that the encyclopedia would focus on quality, in order to compete with Wikipedia:
"We will clearly distinguish ourselves from providers like Wikipedia, by banking on relevance, accuracy and reliability. And, our information cannot be manipulated."
In December, German weekly news magazine Stern ran a cover story asking the question, "How good is Wikipedia?" (see archived story). The story pitted the German Wikipedia against Brockhaus on fifty subjects; the results showed a convincing victory for Wikipedia. On a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the best, Wikipedia received an average score of 1.7, while Brockhaus scored an average of 2.7. In this comparison, Wikipedia came out ahead on comprehensiveness, timeliness (whether the article is up-to-date), and, somewhat surprisingly, on accuracy. The only category that Wikipedia trailed Brockhaus in was that of readability.
Back in May 2005, Jimbo Wales appeared with Brockhaus CEO Alexander Bob at a press conference where they shared opinions on the future of encyclopedias, quality control, and whether they saw each other as competitors (see archived story). At the time, both agreed that the products were more complementary than competitive.
Meanwhile, British newspaper The Independent reported last week that the 2008 version of French encyclopedia Quid, "France's favorite encyclopaedia", had been canceled by its publisher, Robert Laffont, citing the inability of a print encyclopedia to compete with the information available on the Internet. The encyclopedia's founder and editor, Dominique Frémy, plans to issue a 2009 edition and is suing Laffont for breach of contract. While Frémy has already placed Quid online for free, he's also critical of open editing:
"Wikipedia got it wrong from the start by allowing anyone to change its articles. I am sure that people will go back to more structured kinds of encyclopaedias."