According to the Encarta FAQ page, Microsoft is killing off the encyclopaedia--the 2009 versions, it would seem, will be the last. The MSN Encarta websites will, with the exception of the one serving the Japanese market, all be taken down on 31 October 2009 (the Japanese version will come down on 31 December 2009). Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium will cease to be sold by June 2009. Customers with subscriptions to online content will be reimbursed.
According to Wikipedia, the first edition of Encarta was released in 1993, and in the years that followed the number of articles grew and grew, with the 2008 version of Encarta Premium boasting more than 62,000. But why is Microsoft giving Encarta the axe?
In an answer to Microsoft's own question ("Why are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?"), the Redmond company responds with: "Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft's goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today's consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business. Microsoft's vision is that everyone around the world needs to have access to quality education, and we believe that we can use what we've learned and assets we've accrued with offerings like Encarta to develop future technology solutions. In doing so, we feel strongly that we are making the right investments that will help make our vision a reality."
Many, however, will view Wikipedia as the key reason for the fall of Encarta. For one thing, it's free. For another, it's available on any computer with an Internet connection. For a third, it's updated quite a bit more quickly than Encarta ever was.
In fact, according to Wikipedia, Microsoft's product had on occasion failed to be updated in anything approaching a timely manner: "[f]or example, an early 2005 edition of the article about the political philosopher John Rawls opens with 'Rawls, John (1921- ),' although he had died on November 24, 2002. Encarta failed to note the date of his passing until April 2005--about 2-1/2 years after the event."
(Wikipedia's article on Encarta has already been updated to reflect the latter's decease.)