Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 10 • July 2002


Dictionaries, another Netscape?

Joseph J. Esposito

The article 'The Coming Boom in English Lexicography: Some Thoughts about the World Wide Web (Part One)', by my friend, Charles M. Levine, is a very nice work. I will add one small item, then expand upon it: it is not exactly true that Microsoft created their own dictionary to avoid paying royalties to Houghton Mifflin. The royalty issue was part of it, but they also wanted more control over the database. The real game for Microsoft is using lexical databases within computer algorithms, as in natural-language processing. No dictionary on the market today is built for that application. In other words, Microsoft now views lexical databases as an aspect of strategic technology, not simply an aspect of marketing. In this respect, Microsoft cares more about their dictionary than about their encyclopedia.

I do not disagree with Levine's comment on how long the "old" dictionary business will be around. Who knows? It's also not important. In the absence of growth, the old business will be strained for capital, which will beget smaller investments, which will in turn hasten the decline. In the short term, this will redound to the benefit of market leaders, such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford University Press, yet people underestimate what bundling with Windows can mean. There used to be - used to be - a company called FTP Software that created a utility that linked a PC to the Internet. Now that utility's clone is built into Windows. Buy any FTP stock lately?

I can add that my grim vision (from a reference publisher's point of view) of Microsoft originated in the 1980s, when I first got involved with dictionaries as the publisher of Webster's New World, and it consolidated in 1991 while I was running Merriam-Webster and began negotiations with them. (Disclosure: Prior to joining Merriam-Webster, I served as a consultant to Microsoft, though not having anything to do with dictionaries.) In perspective, when I complained about Microsoft bundling a spell checker, with its limited dictionary, into Word ages ago, the techies I knew all laughed at me. Now that most of them have burned through their venture capital after Microsoft "integrated" the gist of their products into Windows, we all cry into our lattes together.

Most discussions of lexicography and dictionaries focus on two items: the future market for printed dictionaries and the opportunities of making dictionaries available in electronic form. The flow of these discussions is predictable. The markets will grow because of (a) globalization, (b) the special place of English (hence English-language lexicography) in the world economy, and (c) the migration to a knowledge-intensive society - "feed your head", as Jefferson Airplane said. The next step of this discussion is to try to figure out where the world of print ends and the world of electronics begins. This is an awkward step for publishers because once you go down this path, it is hard to make a case for any mainstream dictionary publisher surviving long-term except for Microsoft, for the simple reason that Microsoft's dictionaries are being integrated with various Microsoft products, giving them instant (and free) ubiquity. This means that even the most distinguished dictionary publishers will soon have to take for granted that every single one of their prospective customers already owns a good-enough Microsoft dictionary. Publishers therefore will (predictably) flock to the niches that Microsoft does not address (sophisticated products, dictionaries of obscure languages and dialects, marketing arrangements with Microsoft's rivals). To my knowledge, no incumbent dictionary publisher has a strategy to deal with this. I would think that the folks at Oxford, Longman, Merriam, etc. would be getting nervous, but there is no evidence that they are. Their outlook seems to be that dictionaries, like diamonds, are forever. I respectfully disagree. All current attempts (except Microsoft's) to put dictionaries into electronic form are nothing more than a limp attempt to extend the life of a failing business model.

The future of the dictionary business is, then, going to look as follows: First, legacy publishers such as Oxford University Press will continue to muddle along, with growth becoming harder to come by except at the expense of their smaller and declining rivals; eventually they will stop publishing for broad markets altogether and the remaining activity will be to focus on the scraps Microsoft leaves on the floor.

Second, Microsoft will create what I will call the Mainstream Dictionary, a good-enough product for most people most of the time. Intellectuals will hate it, but there are not enough of them to matter. Arguably, Microsoft's Encarta Dictionary, a better product than I would have anticipated, is version 1.0 of the Mainstream Dictionary. One of the surprising things that Microsoft did in the creation of Encarta was to go out and hire some exceptional lexicographers, perhaps under the guidance of their hardcopy publishing partner, Bloomsbury Press in the UK. I say "surprising" because Microsoft's willful ignorance of anything to do with cultural material is astounding. In the USA, Anne H. Soukhanov directed a big part of the operation; in the UK, Faye Carney apparently played a similar role. Both are exceptionally knowledgable dictionary-makers (and both were trained by Merriam, by the way; Carney also worked at Oxford, which has a less rigorous but broader program), but they are not business strategists. The source of Microsoft's dictionary strategy lies elsewhere, perhaps in the company's DNA. Microsoft's competitors should not be distracted by these personnel appointments, as it is not lexicography that can save them but strategy.

Third, an entirely new class of lexical applications will emerge, for which there is no apparent winner at this time, that will be based on machines talking to machines, rather than having dictionaries created for human use. This is important. Nearly all dictionaries nowadays are built with people in mind. And how could it be otherwise, one might ask. But consider what is going on when you want to talk to your car or computer. Voice recognition technology (and its less sophisticated sister, text-to-speech synthesis) requires dictionaries that are built into it, inaccessible to human eyes and ears. Comparably, search technology uses lexical products to find items within huge databases. Who will be the dictionary publishers for such applications? Companies like AT&T, Microsoft, Lucent, and Hewlett Packard. Good-bye, Oxford and Merriam. It was nice to know you, but at some point we all have to move on.

This contribution is derived from email correspondence following the publication of Charles M. Levine's The Coming Boom in English Lexicography: Some Thoughts about the World Wide Web (Part One), in Kernerman Dictionary News, Number 9, July 2001 ( Levine's Part Two is due next year.

About the author
Joseph J. Esposito is an independent consultant, specializing in change from one media to another and in developing strategic overview and management discipline. His publishing experience includes, among others, work for Simon & Schuster and Random House, and managing the brands of Merriam-Webster's dictionaries and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Mr Esposito initiated the first Internet encyclopedia Britannica Online, became the Britannica CEO, and effected Britannica's sale in 1996. He was subsequently CEO of the Internet company Tribal Voice, and has served in various advisory positions, including Board seats at CUseeMe Networks, MIT Press, and Navilinks.

The author's essay The Processed Book elaborates on some of the aspects raised in this contribution and other issues related to the publishing industry. A preview is available online:

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