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Why publishers are unable to develop a really good software dictionary

It’s too bad that the 4th edition of the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary contains 20% less content than the previous one, but at least there are some benefits of that: The book is now smaller and the entries use a bigger font size.

What’s really puzzling is that the CD version has been sized down to match the book. Let me explain the idea here: You’ve got the old edition of the CD and the new edition of the CD, and the new edition has fewer definitions and example sentences than the old one.

As the 4th edition CD is virtually the same as the 3rd edition CD in other respects (the CD is hardly smaller and the font size on screen is exactly the same), HarperCollins essentially spent time and money to develop a new version of its dictionary software, which is worse than the previous one.

While it would be easy to poke fun at HarperCollins, their spectacular failure actually demonstrates the shortcomings of the product development model shared by all dictionary publishers. The model looks like this:

  1. Develop the book
  2. Copy the contents of the book to CD
  3. Put in recordings and other “extras” (a grammar reference, a database with additional example sentences, etc.)

HarperCollins followed the model to the letter. First, they decided to remove 20% of the text in the book to make it more usable. Then, they copied the condensed contents of the book to CD without realizing that the reasons for the removal do not apply to the CD format.

What’s wrong with the “first book, then CD” model

In the development model described above, the “real” product is obviously the book. The software version is merely an afterthought, something that is added to the book to make it more attractive.

The problem with this approach is that the book format has limited space. When making a paper dictionary, the editors cannot put in as many words, definitions, and example sentences as they would like. They always have to remember how much space they have available. As a result, lots of good examples and useful word meanings get thrown away.

The CD format, of course, has no such limitations. The software version of the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary — a book larger than the Collins COBUILD dictionary — is 7 MB in size. This is just 1% of the capacity of a CD, to say nothing of DVDs. But when the CD is just a copy of the book, it can never contain more content than the book. The best you can hope for is more “extras” — for example, you can get more example sentences in a separate unit called the “Wordbank”, but not more example sentences in the dictionary itself.

It is perfectly possible to develop a software dictionary which has five example sentences for every meaning of a word, longer, easier to understand definitions, more words, and more meanings than currently available dictionaries. However, such a dictionary will never be made unless publishers break free from the limitations of print and finally utilize the storage technology which has been available since early 1990’s.