The encyclopedia is a surprisingly old product category that still has some life left in it. Encyclopedia Britannica introduced its first multivolume set in the late 1700s. Printed encyclopedias really caught on with schools and families during the 20th century, when many sets were sold door to door.
The rise of the PC and then the Internet threw the product category into confusion. The venerable Britannica saw profits tumble as it tried different ways to extend its product's life-cycle by marketing encyclopedias on CD-ROM, DVD, and through online subscriptions. Competitor World Book went through similar gyrations, and now offers both printed and online encyclopedias.
During the 1980s, the mighty Microsoft hatched a plan for a CD-ROM multimedia encyclopedia. But by the time it actually launched Encarta, rivals had stolen its thunder. Microsoft struck back by slashing its price--and Encarta soon dominated the category. As the Internet Age picked up steam, however, demand for CD-ROM encyclopedias slumped. Encarta evolved into an online subscription product and will finally get the axe later this year.
Wikipedia's rise contributed to Encarta's downfall. The free, user-written online encyclopedia (logo above) has become so popular since its founding in 2001 that one of its entries is often the top result in any Google search. Did you know it has 256 different sites in languages as diverse as Cornish, Kongo, and Kashmiri?
Google wants to muscle into this industry through Knol, its free, user-written online encyclopedia. But Wikipedia has a huge headstart through higher brand recognition, more articles, and more visitors. Clearly, the encyclopedia's life cycle is far from over. What form will it take next?