Last month the internet was awash with nostalgia and sorrow when Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that they were going to stop printing their world famous volumes after years of having to play second fiddle to online resources.
Britannica said at the time that they would instead focus their efforts on digital and educational resources, and that their digital offerings were much larger than they were able to fit into print.
The news of the final edition triggered a sales rush and within weeks the warehouse containing the final copies of the 4,000 32-volume set was virtually empty.
Britannica has now launched an app available on iPad and iPhone that could replace Wikipedia as your go-to online knowledge resource. The app, which is free to download with a monthly access charge of £1.99, offers full access to the Britannica database plus guest articles from a number of contributors including Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Ian Rankin.
So is it better than the print copy? Without all 32 volumes to hand it’s impossible to say for certain, but the quality of the app is evident from the moment of launch. It takes up a little less room too.
The home screen is clean and easy to navigate with little room for confusion. You are immediately presented with four options; Browse, My Britannica, This Day and Search.
Search is self explanatory, Browse will show you literally all of the content in a massive list and My Britannica is where you can save articles for offline reading.
It is in the This Day feature where that app first begins to shows off how a digital encyclopaedia really goes beyond the restraints of print, with a daily editorialised page. A list of significant events from history is displayed with links to the relevant articles and pages within those articles outlining the event. Aside from the obvious people this would be useful for as a professional tool, as a casual user this feature is easy to get lost in.
The articles are presented in about the most readable fashion imaginable; lots of white space with a simple layout and hotlinks on keywords to other articles. Images, rather than being crowbarred into the articles are in a slideshow at the top of each article page.
Content wise, the encyclopaedia is clearly aimed at a more academic and educational audience, although there are entries on popular culture, various film stars and even one on Justin Bieber.
The most enjoyable feature is without doubt the (slightly crap nineties-looking) ‘Link Map’, which features in every article. The Link Map (pictured) starts with a series of thumbnail pictures which represent links to other articles central to the to topic. You can then tap any of the thumbnails and a new link map opens. Anyone who has wasted an afternoon clicking through endless links on Wikipedia will find the seemingly endless cycle of clicking through again and again just as captivating.
Despite the extraordinarily basic look of this feature, simple probably works best and it would have been easy to make the Link Map look a complete mess. As it stands it is weirdly immersive and easy to get completely sucked into for hours.
Whilst cynics and luddites will drone on that this lacks the appeal of a collection of books which will go out of date from the second you buy them and gather dust whilst taking up an entire wall in your house, grasping at misplaced nostalgic reasons to suggest that an iPad app isn’t as worth owning, they should be ignored and dismissed. What Britannica have achieved here is a perfect platform to bring their world famous, quality content to a global audience at an affordable cost.
Well done Britannica!
If you want to try out the app you can download it for free and see what you think before shelling out - the first 100 words of every article is available without subscription and the top 100 articles are available for free in full.