World Book Inc., the best-known name in encyclopedias, has finally made the big move to CD-ROM.
Ordinarily, that would be great news for consumers. But the company has set a price of $395 for its 24-volume encyclopedia on disk -- effectively eliminating any chance knowledgeable consumers will buy the World Book CD-ROM when competitors are charging only $99.
"The World Book New Illustrated Information Finder," available for either Windows PCs or the Macintosh, contains the full text of the print World Book along with photos, illustrations, maps, charts and tables.
It's not a true "multimedia" encyclopedia because it doesn't have any sound clips, animations or video sequences. But the lack of sound and motion isn't a big loss; other CD-ROM encyclopedias offer only a few hundred chunks of multimedia spread through 26,000 to 34,000 articles.
World Book's strength is the quality of its text, the single most important factor in judging any encyclopedia. World Book editors understand the needs of their audience, children from elementary grades through high school, and have mastered the art of writing simple sentences without condescending to their young readers.
Consider this easily understood but eloquent first paragraph from one of the World Book's 17,000 articles:
"The Civil War (1861-1865) took more American lives than any other war in history. It so divided the people of the United States that in some families brother fought against brother. The Civil War was between the Southern states, trying to preserve slavery and an agricultural way of life, and the Northern states, dedicated to a more modern way of life and to ending slavery. The terrible bloodshed left a heritage of grief and bitterness that declined only slowly and, even today, has not fully disappeared."
The World Book CD-ROM is easy to install and use. Most children familiar with computers probably won't even need to read the instruction manual.
Information can be quickly located and is presented neatly, with text in a scrolling window on the right side. In the upper left is an outline of the article, also in a scrolling window, that makes it easy to navigate through long entries. A window in the lower left offers a thumbnail preview of photos and maps.
The disk also has several useful navigation tools, including a historical time line, point-and-click atlas and "InfoTree" hierarchical guide where users can pull up a succession of menus to focus in on a specific topic.
There are occasional flaws. As with any encyclopedia, updating millions of words can be a nearly impossible task. For example, I found this antique gem in the article on newspapers: "Some reporters write their own stories, but many stories are written by rewriters. In spite of the name, a rewriter does not rewrite material but gets the facts, usually by telephone, from a reporter and assembles them into a story."
These days, rewriters are either gone from newsrooms entirely or play much less prominent roles. Still, the World Book would be a worthy competitor in the field of CD-ROM encyclopedias if it weren't hobbled with a high price.
The big three CD-ROM encyclopedias -- Compton's Interactive, Microsoft Encarta and Grolier -- all sell for $99 or slightly less in stores and through mail-order catalogs.
World Book only sells its print volumes through a direct sales force who make house calls. The CD-ROM, too, will only be available through the direct sales force and will be mostly offered as a $93 extra for customers purchasing the $679 print edition.
For families that have already shelled out $1,500 to $2,500 for a multimedia personal computer, World Book's strategy just doesn't make sense.
If you have $395 to spend on a CD-ROM encyclopedia, good buys are Compton's, Encarta and Grolier. You'll have enough money left over to take your family out for a baseball game. And, by combining the resources of the three encyclopedias, you'll have a far better source of information than World Book alone.
Which encyclopedia should you buy if you want only one? Here are some suggestions:
* Encarta is the best for younger children but may be too shallow for audiences above the junior-high level.
* Grolier is best for adults, but the text may be too dense for children younger than high-school age.
* Compton's is in the middle, a suitable choice for the whole family, with text accessible to young readers and sufficient depth to meet the needs of adults.