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Engineering an encyclopedia: how Websters created international versions of Encarta

Find out how Websters developed and managed the content in various languages for the world’s first multi-language multimedia encyclopedia

Two DVD boxes of Encarta Encyclopedia 2007, content development by Websters

Late in 1989, when Bill Gates was thinking about ways to showcase the consumer potential of multimedia computing under the Microsoft Windows operating system, he hit upon the idea of publishing an encyclopedia. After all, many Americans shelled out large sums to own shelf-busting multi-volume print editions, so why not demonstrate the storage capacity and capabilities of emergent CD- and DVD-ROM technologies by capturing all that knowledge on a silver disc? Then supercharging its educational power by adding sounds and interactive media along with thousands of static images, maps and diagrams to accompany the articles.

Sadly for Bill, the obvious print source, Britannica, was already contemplating a digital offering, so he had to cast around for base encyclopedia data. The well-regarded but far less internationally recognised option of Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia became available: it was this to which Microsoft purchased digital rights. The Multimedia Publishing Group was set up at MS HQ in Redmond, Seattle. Staffed by a small galaxy of publishing professionals and bright young graduates, it was underpinned by the programming and program management expertise of the corporation. Within a couple of years the product code-named ‘Gandalf’ was launched as Encarta 1993 in the United States, its media and features far exceeding competitive encyclopedia offerings from Compton and Grolier.

Though this early Encarta edition carried a prohibitive price tag, it was clear the product had huge commercial potential as a multimedia vehicle – and not just in the United States. Yet the reality of preparing international editions was daunting: over 25,000 articles (more than 9 million words) in 93 categories, with 7,000+ illustrations, photos, charts and maps, an interactive Timeline and 3,500 audio clips – not to mention a World Atlas, plus the famous MindMaze game. The sheer scale of this challenge was compounded by the fact that both the original encyclopedia and new multimedia content were obviously directed towards a US domestic market – with little regard for an international perspective.

Faced with this prospect, Microsoft reached out to Websters. Adrian Webster had consulted on international editions of World Book and, as former managing director of Mitchell Beazley, had unrivalled experience in four-colour multimedia reference publishing – works such as The Joy of Knowledge – across multiple languages. His contacts, particularly in the European editorial and publishing industry, were exactly what was required in order to build Encarta for France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

It was clear from the outset that US Encarta per se was not suitable as the basis for other language versions. A British and World English edition (‘the Z version’) would be required, in which the balance of the encyclopedia would be adjusted to reflect a more global perspective. Articles in areas such as geography (where coverage of individual US states loomed large), sport (redressing the domination of baseball and American football with cricket, football and rugby) and many, many other cultural aspects of content needed to be worked on. In analysing, prioritising and describing those areas of change, a template for the localisation of other language editions would simultaneously be formed.

Starting in early 1994, Websters Multimedia (a company set up by Adrian within Websters International in order to handle this major project, plus other multimedia output) began building the infrastructure and recruiting the personnel required to deliver a complete, fully tested version of the encyclopedia, ready for RTM (Release to Manufacture) in August 1995. The existing Websters offices on the upper storey of an old hop warehouse near London’s Borough Market were extended by rental of the extensive ground floor; here, work stations for over 30 editors, proofers and ‘text preparers’ were set up on a LAN with access to database servers on which US content and media files were stored for editing – and for frequent, regular ‘builds’.

The build process involved extracting and assembling all the data files into an evolving version of the final product – each iteration allowing newly edited content (including, of course, interactivities, sound files and videos) to be proofed, and features such as ‘QVs’ (or cross-referencing hot jumps, a unique Encarta feature) to be checked. Any mistakes – bugs – were logged in a RAID database shared across all international Encarta teams and with Microsoft editors and engineers in Redmond. Each bug would be assigned, with a fix needing to be recorded and tested in a subsequent build before the bug was closed. The build process itself was often a nail-biting experience – usually taking more than ten hours to complete overnight, with no guarantee of success and with the team of proofers standing by to meet their targets. The expertise and steely nerves of the tech team Websters recruited were often tested to the limit.

Driving this evolving content was the UK editorial team, each of whom was assigned a number of categories in their specialist areas (literature, geography, history, life sciences, and so on). Challenging weekly targets were set for editing the US core material plus commissioning new content for Z Encarta. These endeavours were fuelled by the editorial director and the editorial manager (both encyclopedia aficionados who had worked at Oxford University Press) and overseen by the managing editor, who ensured the quality and consistency of the editors’, text preppers’ and proofers’ work. A specialist media editor was engaged to manage the task of localising interactivities and other complex media – including recording many sound files with British English voices.

The UK team also had to keep in constant contact with the US editorial team – who were adding content, media and features that needed to be blended in and localised for the new edition the teams were all working on. Regular team meetings and conference calls with program managers – who were ultimately responsible for getting the project finished on time to the agreed quality standard – were essential to keep things on track. Z Encarta ‘95, the British and World English edition, appeared – on time and on budget – in November 1995.

Less than a year later, the editorial teams that had been set up in Paris, Munich, Turin and Madrid – all under the guidance of Websters and mirroring the setup of the London team – were able to ship their own fully localised versions of French, German, Italian and Spanish Encarta ’96. Websters continued to produce Encarta in multiple markets (including, eventually, the US edition) until the final version, Encarta 2009, was released.

Many of those who worked to deliver these groundbreaking international editions of Encarta still collaborate with Websters today, creating and localising content and products to the highest standard worldwide.

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