In an era when even on-disk encyclopedias seem to be passé, Britannica's move to all-digital editions was inevitable.
There aren’t too many companies that successfully sell a product for 244 years, or even last that long. But Encyclopedia Britannica was one of them. So it was with some sadness that we learned that the 2010 edition of those sacred books will be the last ones ever printed.
As with a lot of companies with a print product, the Britannica folks are looking to push online, with an app and a website coming soon.
I suppose the death of Britannica in print should not be too much of a surprise. Everything’s been going digital for quite a while, and the company said print was now only 1 percent of its revenue.
I was recently in a used bookstore, and there was a big sign announcing that their copy of the 2008 Encyclopedia Britannica was on sale for something like $200. I actually looked at it, but it was not the money that kept me from buying it. It was the fact that I couldn’t think of anywhere to put the large set of books in my house.
This move was probably a long time coming. I remember many years ago when I got one of my first “modern” computers and it came with a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica on CD. I was pretty thrilled when Patrick Stewart’s voice welcomed me to the new on-disk information source, and not just because he was the captain of the Enterprise. He was also doing the narration for Westwood Studios' “Lands of Lore,” a favorite computer role-playing game at the time.
Anyway, I remember looking at the CD and then at my parents’ copy of the World Book Encyclopedia, and thinking how cool it was that the information in all those books was now compressed to fit on a CD I could hold in my hand. It would take many years before the disk beat paper, but I think that was the first blow.
These days, even on-disk encyclopedias seem to be passé. For Britannica, the future could be an app and a subscription-based website, both of which will launch soon. The website will cost $70 a year for a family license, and the app is set to be $1.99 per month.
The obvious competition for this would be Wikipedia, whose advantage is that it’s completely free. The disadvantage is that the entries are sometimes written by drunken monkeys or those with a political or personal agenda, whereas information provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica app would be, well, provided by Encyclopedia Britannica, so you can trust that it’s accurate and written by experts.
The app would certainly be something I would be interested in getting. Although, being an old-school print guy, I kind of want to clear some space and see if the print version of the encyclopedia is still on sale at that used book store. It might be the last paper encyclopedia anyone will ever purchase.