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Who killed print Britannica?

A noir murder mystery

When the print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica turned up on a slab in March, 2012,
a significant shudder passed through many a media hide. Here surely was an old, loved
friend, murdered by technology. During the public autopsy that followed, most
commentators fingered Wikipedia as the prep, with a certain search engine lingering in
the shadows. Sure, they did it all right.

To listen to Jorge Cauz, president of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Company This has
nothing to do with Wikipedia or Google you would have thought the 244-year old
passed gently in its sleep; but the news industry knew better. Wikipedia and Google:
over the last ten years theyd seen these two slinking around the corners of dig street,
leaving behind many a pool of blood for the receivers to clear away in the morning.

But just as in the shadowy world of some Danish noir TV thriller The Killing, perhaps,
or The Bridge this particular story turns out to have an unexpected twist, a handbrake
plot turn and a lot more back story than one might imagine (or come to that require).

So who really killed print Britannica?

Exhibit: the smoking gun

The chart above would surely have had Sarah Lund doing one of those intense stares
into mid-distance, while a spare yet spooky piano figure played on the soundtrack.
Because it suggests that the highly public wounds inflicted by Google and Wikipedia on
print Britannica were merely that staple device of detective fiction, a bruise laid upon a
bruise. Was the victim already mortally wounded before our current suspects weighed
in, perhaps?

Burning the midnight oil, ignoring her voicemail and sidestepping yet another fleeting
chance of relationship happiness, Lund dives into the files. And she notices that long
before Wikipedia and Google had achieved anything like their current ubiquity,
Britannica was already a shadow of its former self. According to scene-of-the-crime, our
smoking gun (slide courtesy of KPCB analyst Mary Meeker) has a set of the fingerprints
all over it belonging to Microsofts Encarta.

So OK, its all down to how you label the chart, but Britannicas rapid decline coincides
all too neatly with the release of Encarta on CD ROM.

Suddenly the pattern looks as clear as the one on Lunds famous fair-isle sweaters.
When Larry Page and Segei Brin got together in the garage in 1998, print Britannica
had already lost around two thirds of its sales. By the time Wikipedia launched in 2001,
it was down to around 25% of its 1990 peak. And when Microsoft finally put a pillow over
Encartas head in 2008, the CD ROM based encyclopedia itself a victim of technologys
breathless onrush, Britannica was already on the floor.

It was beginning to look like a cold case.

Crime stories dont have morals anymore. These days they make do with a bitter
aftertaste. But if this story has a point at all its that Jorge Cauz was perhaps right.
Google and Wikipedia didnt kill print Britannica.

Alastair Sweeny of Microsoft says, they did it to themselves. My company approached


them in the early 1990s with workable CD-ROM search system; they turned us down,
telling us they were producing a searchable digital version themselves. It didnt work.
The following year Encarta arrived.

Question: Microsoft however had to ground Encarta. Discuss this case in the
context of Viable System Model.