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Enyclopedia Britannica unveils iPad app

CHICAGO — Enyclopedia Britannica wants consumers to have the world at their fingertips — virtually, anyway.

The 243-year-old company's newest iPad app, released in late October, has an interactive "LinkMap" feature that shows a web of thumbnail images representing articles. Pinching the tablet's touch screen to zoom out displays an increasingly bigger web of interconnected topics. And someone with small, nimble fingers should be able to get the entire encyclopedia onto one screen.

Touch screens on tablets and smartphones "allow for a different kind of engagement with your brand," said Jorge Cauz, Britannica's president. "It's much more intimate because of the ability to zoom in, the responsiveness of the screen ... the closeness between the user and publisher. The Britannica brand comes much more alive on these apps than on the Web."

These digital initiatives are among the ways Britannica, like a multitude of traditional publishers, is seeking to adapt its business model to the new reality of how information is consumed. The company's obvious rival is Wikipedia, the free, community-edited online reference. But Britannica is also fighting for prominence in a culture where huge amounts of information can be found instantly and without charge, not just on Wikipedia but across the Web.

Britannica's digital strategy employs a hybrid approach. Users have access to 100 free articles on the iPad app and can also read the first 100 words of an article for free. After that, they have to pay $1.99 a month. The iPad app contains all of Britannica's articles and images. The company's website, which costs $70 a year for access, has more features, including videos. It also offers kid-oriented iPad apps that are focused on specific subjects, such as "ancient Egypt" or "volcanoes," and cost $3.99 to $4.99 apiece.

Granting a limited amount of free access gives consumers a taste of how the app or website works, said Chief Marketing Officer Greg Barlow. When a user of the iPad app emails an article, the recipient also can view the entire piece for free without a subscription.

Additional social media sharing functionality is "definitely in the plans for a future release," Barlow said. "We need to be in tune with how people are using it."

In a nod to the crowd-sourced model that is prevalent on the Web, Britannica opened its online articles nearly three years ago to user contributions. The company's fact checkers still vet submissions, but they are doing so faster than ever — online updates are made every 20 minutes. When Cauz became president of Britannica in 2003, the gap was two months. But he emphasized that the company has retained its role as an arbiter of expertly sourced information.

"Collaboration is nothing new to us," Cauz said. "We're not changing dramatically. We're not abdicating our responsibility as publishers."

Britannica's earlier digital pursuits in the late 1990s were troubled. The company bought ads during the 2000 Super Bowl and initially gave away its online content for free. It also sought to spin off Britannica.com as an independent, publicly traded company but scrapped those plans when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

Some observers remain skeptical of Britannica's ability to compete against Wikipedia, which has garnered heavy online traffic. According to Experian Hitwise, Wikipedia received more than 86 million U.S. visits for the week ending Nov. 19, compared with more than 455,000 visits for Britannica.com. Cauz said Britannica.com and the company's online dictionary site, Merriam-Webster.com, collectively garner 40 million visitors every month.

Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst at technology research firm Altimeter Group, noted that top subject matter experts write for Wikipedia and that errors on the site are quickly corrected. Wikipedia articles frequently appear high up on Google search results.

"I think (Britannica's) brand is going to do it for a while, but I think their real market is institutional and academic, and they're going to have to fight to maintain their brand equity in a completely new landscape," Lieb said.