Peter Norton Takes Britannica into the Software Business
Although not willing to follow Wier’s advice in 1983, Britannica’s board of directors did believe the company needed to get closer to the emerging personal computer market. That year, Encyclopædia Britannica Educational Corporation, which I later served as president, published a dozen floppy disk educational titles that it had acquired for the Apple II platform. Soon Britannica decided to directly acquire its own software development capability. In 1985, it purchased Design Wear, EduWear, and Blue Chip, three small San Francisco-based software publishers also selling 5¼ inch floppy magnetic disk products.
With the introduction that year of the CD-ROM format, Britannica also began to think about how it might exploit this new medium. The question was not a simple one. With its vast storage capacity, the Encyclopædia Britannica itself was thought to be too massive to be put on a CD-ROM, even with minimal indexing and a text- only format.
Also, the entire business model of the company was still built on selling its flagship, multi- volume print work at a purchase price of $1,200 and up, depending on the binding. The direct selling sales culture that prevailed at Britannica was no more receptive to the idea of an inexpensive, electronic alternative to the print set than it had been when Patricia Wier first made her recommendation.
In 1987, Britannica’s management, led by former Englishman, now American citizen, Peter Norton, hit on a solution. This time the plan was not seen as a threat to the sales force and it was endorsed by the board of directors. Instead of putting the Encyclopædia Britannica on a CD-ROM, Britannica would become a leader in the newly developing software publishing industry by building a multi-media CD-ROM version of its student- oriented Compton’s Encyclopedia. At the time, the Compton’s print set was given away free as a premium to purchasers of the more expensive Encyclopædia Britannica print set.