It must be dead boring to set an assignment and get 30 copies of an article from Encarta. But even if kids are no longer allowed to crib from CD-ROMs, they provide parents with somewhere to start.
In this case, Son's assignment was to compare a Renaissance painting with something by an Impressionist. Most grown-ups would find this a challenge.
When was the Renaissance, exactly? Who were the leading Renaissance painters?
And can you name any who were not also pizza-eating Turtles?
Son is not, in fact, a keen user of Microsoft's Encarta or Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia, which we have on CD-ROM. Both can be hard for an 11-year old to understand. But sometimes, as here, they turn up trumps, usually because of the graphical and/or musical illustrations: the multimedia elements.
Encarta has been a breakthrough product in the UK, and the only serious title to outsell most computer games on CD-ROM. One reason is that it doesn't need Windows 95: it runs happily under Windows 3.1, and lots of people are still using that. Another factor is the price: it sells for less than u50, and OEM versions (which are supposed to be included only with hardware sales) have been floating around for about u20. This compares with Encarta's 1993 launch price of u299 plus VAT.
Encarta 96 also got a boost from being the first version to appear in a World English edition. This meant it had UK instead of US spellings, extra entries of interest to British and Commonwealth residents, and a less American view of the world. Someone from Websters International, the London-based publishing company that produces World English editions of Microsoft CD-ROMs, nicely describes them as being "differently balanced".
Anglicisation makes a big difference to teachers, and no doubt to some parents, too.
The good news is that a World English edition of Encarta 97 was launched on Thursday, along with the first World Edition of Encarta World Atlas, and the first British edition of Microsoft Bookshelf. All three CD-ROMs are "internet enabled" - they have built-in links to world wide web sites - and each costs u49.99 including VAT.
According to Jean-Luc Barbanneau, Websters' managing director, the latest version of Encarta pays particular attention to the National Curriculum used in schools. This should encourage educational sales, though I'm still not sure that Encarta 97 will sell as well as 95 or 96. The new version may have thousands of improvements, but the user interface and the bulk of the entries seem to be pretty much the same. Except for the internet links, home users don't have a compelling reason to upgrade.
Another option is Microsoft Bookshelf: The British Reference Collection.
This isn't a conversion of the long-running (it was launched in 1987) American CD-ROM, which I've been using for about five years. It's a different but analogous set of books. My US disc, for example, carries The American Heritage Dictionary, The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, and The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, amongst other things. The British selection includes Chambers Dictionary, The Hutchinson Concise Encyclopedia, and The Bloomsbury Treasury of Quotations, along with both an atlas and Roget's Thesaurus.
It's interesting to see Hutchinson on Microsoft's CD because a similar disc, The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library, was co-published with Penguin Books last month at u39.99. There's also a Hutchinson Multimedia Encyclopedia (HME 97), published by Attica, which competes with Encarta.
However, Hutchinson books are produced by a spin-off called Helicon, in which Microsoft took a minority shareholding last year. Smart move.
The CD-ROM industry clearly has problems. However, I'm sure there's still a market for books on CD-ROM, such as Microsoft Bookshelf, Softkey's Infopedia UK, and other titles from Hutchinson and Oxford University Press.
For one thing, bookshelf CD-ROMs have a high perceived value. People still buy reference books, and know that a decent hardback is more likely to cost u20 than u10. A CD-ROM collection can be cheaper than buying paper editions, and offers some real advantages, such as computerised search facilities and multimedia illustrations.
For another thing, reference books are bought for practical and educational reasons, not just for fun. Every family "needs" at least a concise encylopedia, a good dictionary and an atlas, and families with personal computers will probably be tempted by electronic versions of standard works.
Of course, they may not need to buy them today, because CD-ROM encyclopedias and dictionaries are frequently given away with PCs. But sooner or later they will want to update their disks. Printed reference books typically last for decades, but software versions provide the chance to sell an upgrade every year. That's no doubt why Microsoft has put a u29 subscription offer for future issues of Encarta in this year's box.
Jack Schofield is The Guardian's computer editor.
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