Impact of Networks and New Media, BA 296.7, Fall '96
Prof. Howard Besser, U.C. Berkeley
15 Oct 1996
I reviewed Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, Deluxe Edition. Past editions of Encarta have been delivered on a single CD-ROM disc, but the Deluxe Edition is now a two CD set, packaged in a double-carrier jewel case. Even so, Microsoft has shown its proclivity to repackage and produce derivative works from existing content. In classic Microsoft style, the full-featured atlas content has been re-packaged as a separate product-- Encarta 97 World Atlas-which Microsoft advertises as "a more detailed companion CD-ROM product". Despite its Deluxe billing, Encarta 97 provides by default a less capable "lite" version of Encarta 97 World Atlas. However, never shy about Trojan Horse marketing, Encarta 97 came with a Multimedia Catalog, which allows the Encarta 97 user to sample other titles in Microsoft's multimedia stable.
Microsoft has done an admirable job of segmenting the market and extracting consumer surplus based on
willingness to pay for advanced features. Two of the more innovative features--collages and 360 views--
are only included in the Deluxe Edition. The monthly Yearbook and Web links updates are available free to
Deluxe Edition owners, but not to purchasers of the vanilla Encarta 97.
Metadata and Content Structuring
Under the hood, Encarta 97 obviously contains a robust metadata structuring scheme, because the product allows so many orthogonal views on its content. Among its many content structuring schemes are the following:
While the Timelines and Collages were generally very well thought-out and easy to use, some of the
offerings in the Guided Tour category were rather weak, and stretched the bounds of metadata propriety. A
case in point was found under the sub-heading "They've Got Personality", under the sub-subhead "Famous
Rivals". The navigation panel sequenced through a series of "rivalries," which content consisted largely of
the existing biographical articles about one of the rivals, with a minuscule amount of rivalry-related text.
One such rivalry involved tennis greats Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but the Encarta treatment said only
"For years, the greatest rivalry in men's professional tennis was between the serene Borg and the fiery
McEnroe." Featured prominently was Borg's biography, which contained nary a mention of his lifetime
record vs. McEnroe, key matches played against him, or any other information about the "greatest rivalry in
men's professional tennis." This particular panel didn't provide a way to navigate to information about John
McEnroe. In a silly example of meta-data abuse, this same feature provided the following "rivalry" text for
Karl Marx: "Communism and capitalism have been rival political theories for most of the 20th century."
Encarta 97 Deluxe contains an enormously rich variety of hypermedia navigation features, including a wide
variety of point-and-click mouse driven styles, as well as textual entry search. The main window Find menu
presents the user with the PinPointer a deceptively power control which by default presents a simple,
alphabetical scrollable list of all major articles. This in itself was very easy to use, as the control supported
"unique prefix recognition," whereby typing in the first few characters of a desired topic would auto-scroll
the list to the first entry containing that prefix. The PinPointer contains much more powerful features,
however, including an exceptionally well-done Word Search feature. This feature allows the user to
quickly cull all articles containing a keyword, or group of keywords. To use it, one simply types in the
desired keyword, then clicks the Search button, following which the scrollable list is culled to include only
those articles containing the desired keyword. Better yet, when any of the found articles is selected, the
requested keyword is highlighted everywhere it appears in the article! This was an extremely useful
feature, and adds a great deal of value over a print encylopaedia.
Help Wanted: Dept. of Geography
I looked up Ajaccio, which is on the island of Corsica. The atlas entry showed me a perfectly good map of France, with the island of Corsica shown as a small inset near the lower-right corner of the map. Unfortunately, this presentation gave me a weak concept of the geographical relationship of Corsica to France, either in terms of area or in distance from the French mainland. However, by pressing Zoom Out, I could see the proper relationship.
Local Color: As long as it's Gray
The Local Color feature summary invites us to follow the lives of 31 families from around the world
through an "award winning collection of video and photo essays". Interestingly, the image in one
micro-view depicts a cherubic little girl with a lamb peeking meekly over her shoulder. In the background,
one sees a map of Albania. I couldn't help but marvel at this idyllic thumbnail, given Albania's past
half-century of tyrannical dictatorship. To be fair, the Encarta article on Albania was extremely detailed,
and left little doubt about the nature of Albania's political situation.
An Orthogonal View of Content: The Media PinPointer
The Media Gallery used a tool called Media Pinpointer, which exposed one of the glaring weaknesses of
the two CD-ROM format on a single CD-ROM drive machine. The Media Gallery is a very good idea in
principle and presents all the non-text media--including images, video and audio clips--in a single list,
organized alphabetically by subject matter. This provides access of Encarta content orthogonal to its
primary organization by subject or topic. The Media Pinpointer presented a smaller, matchbook sized
image in response to a single mouse click, and presented a larger, 3"x5" index-card-sized image in
response to a double-click. All the matchbook sized images appeared to be available on Disc 1; however,
the index-card-sized images were distributed over both CD-ROM's, which I found irritating. I understand
that due to space limitations, (about 1.32Gb of storage space in the 2 CD set), access cannot be optimized
for all possible orthogonal views. Some views are well-supported. For example, all matchbook images are
physically co-located on Disc 1 to avoid disc swapping. The index-card-sized images, appear to require
about 4x the storage of the accompanying thumbnail images.
A Good Feature in the Making: Interactivities
Another feature was called Interactivities, and consisted of eight discovery and learning activities,
incorporating multimedia in novel ways. One Interactivity was called Population Chart, and while simple
and limited, it hints at more advanced interactive learning tools to come. The essence of the activity was a
set of predefined data selectors and filters which allow users to view different data sets in a variety of
formats. The underlying aggregate data set was US state and Canadian province population data from 1820
to present. The interface allowed selection of up to four states or provinces (but curiously, not a
combination of the two), and displayed line, bar, or fill charts representing the target population.
One set of Buttons on the left side of the window allowed display by total, gender, and region (urban or rural). Another set of buttons allowed selection of fill, line, bar, or stacked-bar style graphs. Overall, this Interactivity was quite instructive. For example, I was able to quickly glean a great deal of information about California population growth. For example, one can easily see from the chart below that the rural population (green) has remained fairly constant since 1900, while the urban population has exploded, particularly since 1940.
The Population Chart Interactivity appears to be the first generation of a multimedia model which will
become increasingly important in future Encarta releasesvalue-added interactive data. I found Population
Chart to be rather simplistic, but found the concept intriguing and useful. What I hope to see in future
releases is an almanac augmented with interactive data browsing tools.
The PinPointer is the main search and navigation tool in Encarta Encyclopedia, and contains extremely
power features, especially for filtering by keyword. In the Article screen, click the Find button to see a list
of articles. Type in a title to see a specific article. To narrow the article list, use filters or the Find Wizard
to search for specific words, categories, media, time frames, and geographic locations.
Links to the World Wide Web
Encarta Encyclopedia includes links to informative Web sites. Just click a link, and your Web browser
opens the site. Open the Web Links feature to see a directory of all of the available links. Click the More
Information button while viewing any article to see the links related to that article. And each month, use
the download screen to copy new links from the Web.
Each month, Encarta Encyclopedia editors use the latest information to create encyclopedia updates,
which you can install from the World Wide Web. Each update installment includes article updates and new
Web links. The first month's installment is included on the CD-ROM. Owners of the Deluxe Edition, can
download future monthly installments for free.
At the top of the Article screen, you can display menus by clicking them or passing your mouse cursor
over them. You can print selected text, an entire article, images, or captions. You can also copy text,
images, and audio into your own documents. Click the Dictionary button to open the Dictionary toolor
simply double-click a word in an article to display its definition. For easier reading, you can even change
the size of article text.
User-Specific Settings: A Nice Touch
Users can adjust the look and feel of Encarta 97 based on personal preferences. Click the Options menu
button, then click Settings. In the Settings dialog box, you can change your sound options, your default
word processor and printer, your startup and exiting preferences, the color of jump text, etc.
An Interesting Copyright Feature
An interesting copyright protection mechanism is embodied in Encarta's built-in Copy-to-Clipboard feature. When the image is copied to the clipboard, an author credit is automatically inserted on top the raw image, so it appears when the image is subsequently pasted. Microsoft takes this seriously, to the extent that Bill's own image is overlaid with photographer Kal Muller's tagline when pasted into Word. This effect is illustrated below. The first image was captured using the Encarta feature; the tagline is subtly, but clearly visible in the lower-left of the image. The second image was captured directly from the Encarta content window using a popular "screen-grabber" program, and appears as it did in the windowsans tagline.
Microsoft does this to indemnify themselves against copyright violations. There is a clear distinction between the image heisted from Encarta using Encarta features, vs. external tools.
My primary complaint was too frequently having to switch CD-ROMs. This might be a non-issue soon. For
example, Compaq's newest slim-profile Presarios come standard with a 4-CD changer.
One reviewer reported a "sickening" feeling looking at the slowly developing pulldowns. I didn't get that
feeling, but found the stylized behavior to be annoying and a time-waster.
But Overall, an Outstanding Multimedia Product
Despite the occasional excursions into metadata depravity, Encarta 97 was a thoroughly enjoyable and immensely useful product. I found it far more useful than a print encyclopedia, and a much richer experience, based on the well-designed integration of images, text, video, audio, and navigation features. The Interactivities are a highly promising new avenue for interactive teaching content-I hope Microsoft incorporates more of this type of content in future versions of Encarta.