Microsoft’s years-long-running multimedia CD-based encyclopedia product, Encarta, will be history by the end of the year. According to Ars Technica, Microsoft quietly announced the discontinuation date for Encarta to be October 31, 2009. Although the MSN press release doesn’t go into too much detail on all the reasons why this decision was made, (nothing about Wikipedia for example), they do mention that the way people look for and consume information has changed substantially in the last few years, which seems like a fair assessment.

It appears that all Encarta properties will be phased out over the coming year. They will stop selling the retail and student versions by June and the online MSN Explorer content will be removed by the end of October. Customers paying for a subscription to Encarta Premium will receive a pro-rated refund around the middle of the year. Technical support, like with most other Microsoft products, will continue for three years after the official end of life.

As we mentioned, although Microsoft doesn’t directly implicate Wikipedia as one of the harbingers of their decision to kill Encarta, we can only assume that it is a big part of that decision. Although Encarta’s content was carefully curated, and of course factually accurate (which is often more than what you can say about Wikipedia), apparently the cost and availability of instant sources of information online has overcome the appeal of this once-novel encyclopedia.

Speaking for a moment about novelty, I do remember clearly getting my first CD-ROM drive in the mid-90s and then shelling out some hard-earned money for Encarta because it was simply the de facto proof of concept for the term multimedia. Hundreds of thousands of articles, indexed and cross-referenced, high-resolution photographs, small videos, and sound files all made the Encarta experience something singularly awesome in a time where most people were still trying to figure out how to allocate all their extended memory to get Windows 3.1 to run on their PC. Encarta brought a legitimacy to that term, multimedia, where a lot of other projects often fell short. And no, you can’t bring up Myst.

So, it is with a measure of sadness that we see this chapter of PC history come to a close, and the venerable Encarta book placed on the shelf next to Microsoft Cinemania and BOB. Although the date will come and go without fanfare, it does mark the end of an era.