Keeping Encyclopedias at your fingertips with your iPhone

I remember the old days, where one could feed their love of general information and all things scholarly by having a recent copy of the Britannica Encyclopedia on their bookshelf. Just one glimpse at their 32 volume printed collection and you knew that this was a person who was serious about their learning and love of facts.

Fast forward to the present. Britannica now offers their entire encyclopedia via software, and for about 4 gigs of space on your notebook or desktop you can take it with you. It is a great time to be a connoisseur of information. But it is not as simple as that.

Encyclopedia Britannica was almost edged out of the limelight by Microsoft’s foray into all things information with their Encarta product. Bearing a flashier presentation and a stronger interface (despite less content), Encarta replaced Britannica as the first in user choices.

But now Britannica can rule again, as Microsoft has announced that are ceasing the Encarta product. The reason? One word – Wikipedia. The online resource Wikipedia has once again turned the eyes of the public, and the go-to source has left Encarta by the wayside.

But that is not your only choice for a local warehouse of knowledge. You can also find a recent dump of Wikipedia and store that on your desktop or notebook, having it readily available in case the apocalypse strikes early. One of the better implementations I have found uses Tome Raider for the front end and it offers very fast lookup over large volumes of content.

So, by now you’ve got all of the General Knowledge you need on your big machine, and life is good. Unfortunately, you will not always have that machine with you as you go about in life. But you do have an iPhone (perhaps), and, having a thirst for instant cranial gratification, what are your best choices to stay prepared for a quick hit?

Wikipedia in mobile Safari

First, let’s assume that you are in a location where you are online with a decent connection. Under this condition, the most common choice is Wikipedia online. And while you can point your mobile safari browser at the website and have a go at it, that process will involve some pinching and panning in order to do a lookup or read content. The website is not enhanced for iPhone users, but it will work in a pinch.

A better way to access Wikipedia on the iPhone is to use any number of free access Apps available on the AppStore.

Wikipedia Apps

One of my personal favorites is Wikitap, which encapsulates the Wikipedia experience to a well-formed and readable page. Lookups are simple, with a list of possible entries that narrow down as you type in a search word. For example, by the time I type in “ben fr”, I have a list that shows Benjamin Franklin, Ben Franklin (The Office), The Canadian Ben Franklin, and the PX-15 Ben Franklin (for starters, the rest can be viewed by scrolling).

A quick tap on the list brings up the article, complete with pictures, and a list of YouTube media related to good old Ben. The App also offers a caching mechanism and a really cool Wikipedia lookup based on current location – you might be surprised what you find in your given area.

There are many different Apps for accessing Wikipedia on the AppStore, all varying with features and usefulness. But Wikipedia is not the only game in town. There are others, just waiting for your perusal.

Encyclopedia Britannica with mobile Safari

Encyclopedia Britannica (eb.com) offers a mobile iPhone version that works in the browser, and it offers a lot of details. Unlike its desktop partner, the mobile version is free to use. A quick lookup of Ben on the site yielded an outline and very many screens of information, and it covered quite an in-depth look at the enigmatic person. There were many pictures accompanying the article, and I was quite pleased with the results.

Did I mention it was free? Well, there were two ads on the screen, but they were located at the top and bottom of the page, and were not at all obtrusive. Good news is that there were no ads inline with the content. I would suggest that anyone who wants well-researched and solid encyclopedia source on his or her iPhone give it a look. (Use the shortcut eb.com when you do, it will save some finger effort).

Encarta Online with mobile Safari

Encarta Online (Encarta.msn.com) is alive and well for the time being, but in the iPhone browser you will find a non-iPhone optimized web page. (Did that surprise anyone? I hope not.) Soldering on after pinching and panning, we did a lookup of Ben on the site. We found a good article with lots of information, and it was comparable to that with Britannica Mobile.

A couple things we did not like are ads in the middle of the article (it throws off reading it in the browser), and the need to load more than one page to see the entire article. But the content was there, and it was informative with accompanying media.

Worldbook Online with mobile Safari

Worldbook Online (Worldbookonline.com) is a non-optimized web site, but save the pinch and pan time unless you already have a subscription to the site. Otherwise, move along folks, nothing to see here. The same is true for Grolier online (go.grolier.com).

So, you’ve got places to find an encyclopedia online, but what if you are not online at the time? Well, obviously your choices narrow drastically, but there are alternatives.

Offline copies

One possibility is to grab an App that encompasses a copy of Wikipedia. Steam Heavy Industries has an app that does exactly that, and it works fairly well. However, there are many articles that are simply missing in action, and a search for Ben Franklin on the App has no entry for the man himself (The patriot, not the Canadian politician). Zero, zilch, Nada.

The other Ben Franklin entries are present for the most part, so it is not a complete loss. The app offers text but no pictures or other media. This should not be a surprise to anyone who considers the storage requirements for all of the information present. But with occasional missing entries it can prove to be frustrating.

What about a local iPhone copy of Britannica? Well, If you can read Korean there is an App that offers exactly that on the AppStore. Unfortunately, I cannot, so I cannot offer any more information beyond the fact that it is present.

I mentioned Tome Raider earlier, and I am happy to see it on the iPhone. Unfortunately, the app does not offer (that I can find) any way to view books other than the handful it has on its downloadable web site. This is sad, because there are several FULLY WORKING versions of a local Wikipedia in the TR format. Perhaps this will change in the near future, giving consumers another choice for a local (offline) encyclopedia.

So there you have it, a quick look at the Encyclopedias available on the iPhone. As of this writing I wish that the local copy availability was more robust, but I have the feeling that this will be a niche market at best, especially as wireless carriers continue to expand coverage area.

As a matter of fact, with the connected nature of the device the most over-riding feature may very well be convenience. And I cannot fault the users for this – after all, why else would you buy a set of encyclopedias instead of going to the library in the first place.

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  • Jeremy

    It’s a non-point, these apps will be pulled in a couple of weeks by the app-approvers for infringing on Apple’s core functionality to display text.

  • Ganguma

    I don’t see why Microsoft Encarta should be driven out of business by Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has a much larger content, I prefer Encarta as it is less detailed. For instance, say I have no idea who Benjamin Franklin is. Encarta will give me all the quick and most important details I need whereas Wikipedia will give me all the tiny little details I might not necessarily need. I find Wikipedia most appropriate for advanced scholarly researchers, which I am not! Encarta should stay!

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