It took time for the Encyclopaedia Britannica to remake itself for the Internet age, but it was well worth the wait. Immediately after Britannica.com Inc. put its 32 volumes on the Web at no charge, the site was crushed under what the Chicago-based company described as a "tidal wave" of activity. More than 10 million visitors on the first day caused the site's servers to collapse. Britannica pulled the plug until it could boost capacity.
The Web site is now back up. The 44 million words of encyclopedia content is now supplemented by material from news wires and more than 70 magazines, from The Economist to Esquire. Other features include a guide by Britannica's editors to useful sites on the Web. It's really a quasi-search engine with two centuries of editorial judgement built in.
James Strachan, a Britannica executive, says the Web site will help Internet users "read the world's headlines in the context of its history, cultures and evolution. It will offer the perfect antidote to the sound-bite culture."
They should do well. People trust the company's abilities to separate intellectual wheat from chaff. Britannica intends to make money from its Web site through advertising and related e-commerce activities. While Britannica's actions may have a last-gasp air about them, the free content formula has already proved successful for several other news and current affairs Web sites.
This is a fundamentally different business model for the company; it marks a shift from selling a good to a service. Fortunately for Britannica, demand for this service can't help but grow.
A decade ago, the company generated US$650 million in revenue selling its encyclopedia door-to-door. If parents wanted to invest £1,000 in their kids' intellectual development, buying the Britannica was a smart decision.
Today, most parents think spending £1,000 on a networked computer is the better investment. I agree. The Internet is a factoid geyser. If you want to know Thailand's population or how wolves adapt to their environment, the Web is now the place to go.
But today's information consumer needs context, not just content. In particular, students need to know how to authenticate, filter and synthesize the enormous volume of information flowing over them.
For example, individuals and advocacy groups of all persuasions are building Web sites that pump out what really is propaganda cloaked as objective analysis. The number of such sites grows daily.
That's fine. I believe in freedom of speech, and the more points of view the better. But as our kids conduct research on the Web, they need a helping hand to discern what is credible and whose agenda is being advanced. Parents and teachers aren't always around, and I am glad Britannica is lending its trustworthy hand.
Don Tapscott is chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies.