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Encyclopaedia Britannica opens its book to the Internet for free


October 19, 1999
Web posted at: 5:06 p.m. EDT (2106 GMT)

(CNN) -- Encyclopaedia Britannica, the longtime leader in information that has lost its way in the Internet era, is giving away its knowledge for free in a desperate bid to stay afloat. As of Tuesday, the publisher's 32-volume set is available to anyone for free on their site.

The only catch: You have to wade through advertisements -- Britannica's source of revenue for the risky move -- to get your information.

The entire Britannica -- from a-ak (an ancient East Asian music) to Zoroastrianism (a Persian religion) -- can be found at the Chicago company's retooled site,

Visits made to that site Tuesday afternoon, however, were met with the typical response to a major Internet announcement - nothing at all. The Britannica site was crushed with the onslaught of users and it was difficult to even make a connection to the site.

Hoping to emulate the success of Amazon, Yahoo! and others, the site also offers current information from newspapers, news agencies and 70 magazines as well as community services such as e-mail, weather forecasts and financial market reports.

The head of the new company, split off by the publishing company to house its digital properties, Inc., tried to put the best spin on the venture, calling this "a momentous day for knowledge seekers everywhere."

"Purchasing the Encyclopaedia Britannica was once a major milestone in a family's life, but today we are fulfilling our promise to make it more accessible to more people worldwide," said Don Yannias, the new company's chief executive officer.

But giving up its prime asset for free -- bound volumes still go for about $1,250 a set -- shows the straits into which the 231-year-old company has fallen.

Encyclopaedia Britannica had revenue of $650 million and a sales force of 2,300 at its peak in 1989. Revenue estimates are no longer available from the privately held company, where the work force is thought to number about 350. The company lost ground badly when Microsoft Corp., after being spurned by Britannica, teamed with discount-market encyclopedia publisher Funk and Wagnalls to produce a colorful, multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM in 1993. Britannica's own CD-ROM version, released a year later, was low on graphics and did not fare well.

It also became the first encyclopedia available on the Web in 1994, but the reception was muted by the $85-a-year subscription fee. House calls by salesmen, once a company trademark, were dropped in 1996.

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