What Hath the Cloud Wrought?

Purposeful View: A lesson from the last print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (by Walt Lapinsky, 25 March 2012)

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March 12, 2012: after 244 years the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be published in a hard copy form. The last 4,000 copies of the final 32-volume 2010 edition are going fast at US$1,395 each. Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, said, “Today’s announcement is not about our past, but our future — and the new ways we’re serving our customers.” When asked, a Britannica spokesperson said it was not because of Wikipedia. “Britannica’s competitive advantage with Wikipedia came from its prestigious sources, its carefully edited entries and the trust that was tied to the brand.”

1911 Britannica
Ad in May 1913 National Geographic

Those of us over 20 will remember when an encyclopedia was the place you went to when the teacher or professor said, “Write a paper about <insert some subject here you never heard of>.” After fourth grade, I was never allowed to actually cite an article from an encyclopedia, but it gave a quick overview of the topic and a great set of references to material that I could cite. The encyclopedia also provided training in two other important areas: how to find things (the Britannica had two big volumes just for the index) and the minimum number of words you had to change to avoid getting accused of plagiarism. The Britannica has about half a million articles written by about 4,400 contributors. Each article is reviewed about once a year.

Talk about being overtaken by events. Wikipedia has more than 21 million articles in 293 languages, 3.9 million articles in English. It has about 100,000 active contributors. Articles are reviewed and updated daily. It has everything I wished for in those pre-Wikipedia days: easy searches, links both within Wikipedia and out to lots of references. It totally replaced the encyclopedia, at least from my perspective.

The peak for the printed Encyclopedia Britannica was in 1990, with 120,000 copies sold. Britannica only printed 12,000 copies of the 2010 edition, and 8,000 have been sold so far.

Both Britannica and Wikipedia accuse the other of inaccuracy or bias in their articles, and I have seen studies that “prove” each side’s view. But I’m not sure that it matters. Wikipedia is so much better than Britannica for what I want: an easy way to get an up-to-date overview of a topic and references for more information. For one thing, Wikipedia is available on my smart phone and does not weigh 135 pounds. I really do not care that Wikipedia is 100% accurate or has some, probably obvious, bias. I am probably not going to stop at that one article.

Wikipedia is an example of Software as a Service (SaaS) in the Cloud, and an example of Open Source – something created and maintained by a relatively informal community of contributors.

Our view: In general, this is just an interesting piece of history. But we believe this is symptomatic of what will happen to many products. We suggest you carefully look at your products and even your services to see how the Cloud can make them easier to use, easier to find, and available to a much wider audience. Can you figure that out before your competition?

Comments? Questions? Contrary views? Some event we missed?
We welcome your feedback at talk@purposefulclouds.com

Purposeful Clouds helps companies assess and plan their best options for Cloud technology adoption, with before-the-fact consideration of contingencies, ROI, and further migration strategies. To discuss how we would be able to help you make the best decisions, contact us at info@purposefulclouds.com.

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