The Encarta Bee Challenge will have five finalists, ages 13 to 18, competing at the New York City Public Library for a $50,000 college scholarship and trip for two. Frankie Muniz, who stars in the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle," will host the event.
Besides being good public relations, the competition is a way for Microsoft to grab market share in the increasingly lucrative education market. It will also let the company demonstrate how boxed software, such as its Encarta encyclopedia, can be meshed with the Internet.
Companies such as Microsoft that produce educational and reference software have been grappling with how Internet-based research affects sales. Like Encyclopaedia Britannica, Microsoft offers an online research site that enhances, and in some ways supplants, reference software.
"Our CD product increasingly has an Internet-based component to it," said Craig Bartholomew, head of Microsoft's Learning Business Unit. "We're trying to draw kids' attention to our natural-language search tools. The purpose of general search engines is (geared) for the Web, whereas the purpose of Encarta is to answer questions."
In September, different versions of Encarta took the top three positions in reference software sold at retail, according to research firm PC Data. World Book 2001 encyclopedia captured the fourth spot, followed by Simon & Schuster's New Millennium Encyclopedia.
In early October, Microsoft started taking online Encarta Bee registrations, which close on Halloween. As of Thursday morning, 46,561 students nationwide had registered for the competition.
To play, contestants must answer multiple-choice questions using Encarta.com or other resources during a set time period. Those students completing five correct questions within the allotted time advance to the next round. Participants must make it through eight rounds to qualify for the semifinal to be held online during the week of Nov. 13.
Students making it to the semifinal round will be drilled on 25 questions, all requiring extensive research to complete. The five students with the high scores advance to the live event in New York City on Dec. 2.
A sample question: "In Chanson de Roland, Roland is killed fighting the Saracens, although in fact it was probably the Basques who did him in. Where did this battle take place?"
One common mistake teachers make is instructing students to do Internet keyword searches to find information, said Merle Marsh, administrator at the Worcester Preparatory School.
"You should always give some starter sites," Marsh said. "In today's world it's so important to be able to develop good skills and effective methods to find information."
Microsoft, of course, is also angling to win market share from Apple Computer, once the dominant technology company in education.
"Microsoft wants to have mind share in education," said Gartner analyst David Smith. "They also don't want people growing up thinking of Microsoft as the Evil Empire, as it sometimes is portrayed out there, but as the do-gooder."
Embracing the Internet and convincing consumers Encarta and Encarta.com are valuable research tools is important for Microsoft, Smith said, adding that the size and nature of the Internet seem to guarantee a market for CDs.
"The big, bad Internet, as unorganized or as woolly as it is, couldn't replace Encarta by itself. But an Internet-based competitor could," Smith said.