Saturday, January 5, 2008

Just when I thought Britannica might finally have gotten it right ...

... they pull a boneheaded stunt.

Okay, we all know that traditional encyclopedia publishers have been taking a beating as people turn to the free Wikipedia for content.

Still, every couple of years I update my Encyclopaedia Britannica CD-ROM. This year, I opted for the 2008 Ultimate DVD edition because, as it says on the packaging, it includes: "Free! Encylopaedia Britannica Online 1-Year Subscription -- a $70 Value!"

I mean, heck, the DVD, with over three gigs of quality content was only $35 -- and with a year of online access thrown in, it's a bargain, right? Especially if you want signed articles by authorities whose bona fides you can trace, right? (For example, Britannica's article on "Science Fiction" is by none other than Bruce Sterling.)

But it turns out that what's included is NOT a free one-year subscription to Britannica Online. No, it's a free one-year trial of Britannica Online that auto-renews at $49 if you don't cancel it before the end of the year. You have to give a credit-card number to claim your "free" subscription, and if you don't cancel on just the right day you either (a) get charged more than you paid for the effing DVD in the first place, or (b) get something less than the year you were promised because you canceled early.

F*ck that noise. In its quest to beat Wikipedia at its own game, instead of taking lessons in how online access should be done, they've copied the ploys used by porn sites,, and other shady dealers. When will they ever learn?

There are some improvements in the latest CD-ROM/DVD version of Britannica, most notably that long articles appear as one continuous scrollable page, instead of in little section-by-section chunks, which does make finding particular facts easier, and you can freely export articles to HTML.

But the largest font size you can select in Britnanica is still too small for my eyes, and they still use the clunky not-Windows-standard Java engine they've been using for the last several years, so all the menus and dialog boxes look a bit off.

Also, while the included Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is indeed the new 11th edition, it's actually a stripped-down version, missing proper nouns such as Toronto and Clinton that are in the print and standalone CD-ROM versions.


The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At January 06, 2008 10:58 AM , Blogger Somnambulist Seeker said...

Preach it, Rob!

At January 06, 2008 1:42 PM , Blogger Josh said...

Mostly, I am just loving "f*ck that noise." Indeed!

At January 06, 2008 6:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


you can cancel anytime during your one year free trial to prevent being billed via auto-renew. moreover, no matter when you cancel during your year free trial, you'll get the full 365 days of access.

rock on.

At January 06, 2008 6:35 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Anonymous, can you provide a citation to back up what you just said? A link to where that policy is explained?

At January 09, 2008 7:48 AM , Blogger Ian said...

A good use for one-time-use credit card numbers that I believe Paypal is coming out with.

It always seemed like such an obvious idea to me; let someone grab the Visa number you used on their site (or the site they stole it from), it won't work when they try to use it.

In this case, when EB try to renew, the number's invalid and you've got the year you paid for, no more, no less.

At January 09, 2008 8:27 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Interesting! Part of the reason I hate with a passion is that when they didn't have my current Visa card expiration date on file (since that card had expired), they GUESSED what the new date was (the old date, plus exactly three years, as is the custom of my bank), and ran a charge through anyway. I got the to reverse it after saying I'd escalate this as a credit-card fraud case, but, MAN!, we had a chance to reinvent commerce positively with the net, and instead we let all sorts of rapacious and unethical practices just slide into place as the unchallenged norm.


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