Microsoft publishes similar encyclopedias under the Encarta trademark in various languages, including German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese. Localized versions may contain contents licensed from available national sources and may contain more or less content than the full English version. For example, the Dutch version has content from the Dutch Winkler Prins encyclopedia.
In the late 1990s, Microsoft bought Collier's Encyclopedia and New Merit Scholar's Encyclopedia from Macmillan and incorporated them into Encarta. Thus the current Microsoft Encarta can be considered the successor of the Funk and Wagnalls, Collier, and New Merit Scholar encyclopedias. None of these formerly successful encyclopedias are still in print, being unable to adapt to the new market dynamics of electronic encyclopedias.
Microsoft has introduced several regional versions of Encarta, but some of them have been discontinued. For example, the Brazilian version was introduced in 1999 and suspended in 2002. The Spanish version is somewhat smaller than the English one, at 42,000 articles.
In July 2006, Websters Multimedia, a Bellevue, Washington subsidiary of London-based Websters International Publishers, took over maintenance of Encarta from Microsoft.
The latest version is Encarta Premium 2009, released in August 2008.
Encarta's standard edition includes approximately 50,000 articles, with additional images, videos and sounds. The premium editions contain over 62,000 articles and other multimedia content, such as 25,000 pictures and illustrations, over 300 videos and animations, and an interactive atlas with 1.8 million locations. Its articles are integrated with multimedia content and may have a collection of links to websites selected by its editors. A sidebar may display alternative views or original materials relevant to the topic.
Encarta's Visual Browser, available since the 2004 version, presents a user with a list of related topics. Its multimedia includes virtual 3-dimensional tours of ancient structures, for example the Acropolis; 2-dimensional panoramic images of world wonders or cities; and a virtual flight program which moves the user over landscape.
Encarta also included a trivia game called "MindMaze" (till Encarta 2007) in which the player explores a castle by answering questions whose answers could be found in the encyclopedia's articles. The feature has been removed in 2008 and later versions.
For years, Encarta came in three primary software editions: Basic, Premium, and Reference Library (price and features in that order.) Beginning in 2006, however, when Websters Multimedia took over its maintenance, Encarta became a feature of Microsoft Student as the premier Microsoft educational software program. Although it is possible to purchase only the Encarta encyclopedia separately, Microsoft Student bundles together Encarta Premium with Microsoft Math (a graphing calculator software) and templates for Microsoft Office. In addition, the Reference Library was discontinued, absorbed into a newer, more comprehensive Premium package. Encarta's user interface is shared with Microsoft Student, and has been steamlined to reduce clutter with only a Search box which returns relevant results; however it is no longer possible to simply browse all the encyclopedia articles alphabetically.
The maps contain hyperlinks to related articles ("Map Trek") and also supports a "Dynamic Sensor" that provides the latitude, longitude, place name, population and local time for any point on the globe. Encarta also generates a visible-light moon atlas with names of major craters and hyperlinks. However, it does not include a planetarium. In addition to database generated maps, many other illustrative maps in Encarta ("Historical Maps") are drawn by artists. Some more advanced maps are interactive: for example, the large African map for Africana can display information such as political boundaries or the distribution of African flora.
Bookshelf was discontinued in 2000, and in later Encarta editions (Encarta Suite 2000 and onwards), Bookshelf was replaced with a dedicated Encarta Dictionary, a superset of the printed edition.
There has been some controversy over the decision, since the dictionary lacks the other books provided in Bookshelf which many found to be a useful reference, such as Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (replaced with a quotations section in Encarta that links to relevant articles and people) and an Internet Directory (although now a moot point since many of the sites listed in offline directories aren't around anymore).
Before the emergence of the world wide web for information browsing, Microsoft recognized the importance of having an engine that supported a multimedia markup language, full text search, and extensibility using software objects. The hypertext display, hyperlinking and search software was created by a team of CD-ROM Division developers in the late 1980s who designed it as a generalized engine for uses as diverse as interactive help, document management systems and as ambitious as a multimedia encyclopedia. Encarta was able to use various Microsoft technologies because it was extensible with software components for displaying unique types of multimedia information. For example, a snap in map engine is adapted from its MapPoint software. More information on the hypertext and search engine used by Encarta may be found in the Microsoft Bookshelf article.
Unlike Microsoft Office, Encarta software only supports Microsoft Windows with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Encarta 98 was the last version to be released for the Macintosh. However, an Apple Macintosh or Linux/Unix user with Internet connection may still access Encarta's website.
Encarta uses database technologies to generate much of its multimedia content. For example, Encarta generates each zoomable map from a global geographic information system database on demand.
Robert McHenry, while Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica, criticized Encarta for differences in factual content between national versions of Encarta, accusing Microsoft of "pandering to local prejudices" instead of presenting subjects objectively. An article written by Bill Gates addressed the nature of writing encyclopedia for different regions.