Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Librarians and other such information enthusiasts jumped for joy last week as Encylopedia Britannica announced its rebirth as a mobile app. The news may have momentarily soothed the many collectors still grieving the loss of the 244-year-old encyclopedia, who learned last month from the New York Times that the 2010 edition would be its last in print.
The app is available on the iPhone and iPad, but there are plans to introduce an Android version soon. There is a free edition available in the iTunes app store that allows access to abbreviated versions of the full-text articles. The short snippets are about 70 words long and are coupled with an encouraging, “to continue reading, activate your subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica.”
There is also a small offering of free full-text articles, which is a great strategy to draw in new subscribers. In the screenshot to the left, which I’ve uploaded from my iPhone, you can see that one such free article, on the gay rights movement, is 23 pages long. Even the preview-only articles contain enough information for cursory knowledge of the topic, which would satisfy the needs of the majority of users—because in reality, no one is doing extensive scholarly research on their iPhones.
The full-text, 80,000+ article subscription comes at a cost of $1.99 per month (and is automatically renewable). This is an interesting pricing strategy, given the success of the 100 percent free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. I suppose the publisher is hedging its bets that the prestige and accuracy Britannica is known for will set this app apart from other online encyclopedias. (Also worth noting: though a Britannica app subscription isn’t free, it is certainly more economical than the $1,395 price tag on the 2010 edition!) And, as far as I can tell, the free version isn’t really that bad.
In this screenshot of the app homepage, you can see the various features available to the free user. The background is a vibrant image of the featured “Did You Know?” full-text article of the day, in this case, Crater Lake. The “Browse” feature allows you to peruse all the articles by the first letter of their entries. The “This Day” feature accomplishes something the print version couldn’t: it shows you a featured event as well as all other events that the encyclopedia has recorded on the current day, along with links to each event’s article. You can also toggle to “Born This Day,” which shows you a list of people through history with birthdays on the current day (along with links to their biographical entries).
The “My Britannica” feature keeps three lists of your browsing record: recent, favorites, and saved. This is another nice feature to offer non-subscribing users.
As I mentioned before, some free full-text articles are available, and you can access them from the homepage by touching the red “More FREE Articles” ribbon. There are 94 (I counted), mostly covering popular subjects such as influential countries, notable people, and important cultural movements and ideas. Given that’s just barely over one-tenth of a percent of the total 80,000 articles, I think it would be in Britannica’s interest to shell out a few more freebies.
Though the new app won’t replace the collector’s appeal of the 129-pound printed set, it is definitely a smart move toward embracing the digital revolution.