Wikipedia vs Encarta: How Decentralization Won

In the early 2000s, Wikipedia had a rivalry with its centralized competitors like Microsoft Encarta.

Encarta began as a pet project of Bill Gates in the late 1980s with the goal of digitizing the encyclopedia Britannica.

They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles.

Originally sold on DVD, it was also available on web via an annual subscription.

When launched, it was a great product. It came with graphics and music. It had better topic coverage & higher factual accuracy.

But as the amount of information online grew exponentially, it didn’t make sense to buy DVDs of factual material.

Encarta couldn’t keep up and became “embarrassingly outdated”.

In 2001, Jim Wales and Larry Sanger had a different idea on digitizing the encyclopedia.

They realized that building a team to perform this MASSIVE task was useless. Why not just crowdsource it?

Write about things you’re interested in. No one gets paid. Just do it for fun.

Wikipedia grew at a much faster pace because it had an active community of volunteers who were attracted to its “decentralized, community-governed ethos”.

By 2009, Wikipedia was the most popular reference site with a 97% market share.

Encarta was shut down in 2009.

Analysis by @cdixon of @a16z:

Centralized products like Google and Facebook are launched fully baked, with clear use cases.

Whereas, decentralized products often launch half-baked and have to go through several iterations to find product-market fit.

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