Microsoft is shutting down its Encarta encyclopedia websites and will also discontinue its Student and Premium Encarta software products, in a move seen as an admission of defeat to free online services such as Wikipedia.

"The category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed," reads a note explaining the move on the MSN Encarta website. "People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past."

The Encarta websites worldwide will shut down on October 31 and Microsoft will stop selling the software products by June this year. One exception is the Encarta Japan website, which will stay live until the last day of this year.

People who have paid for a subscription to MSN Encarta Premium, which offers them access to more information, will get a refund for fees paid beyond April 30, although they'll continue to be able to access the site until it shuts down in October.

Microsoft will continue to offer technical support for the software products for three years.

The software giant has discontinued a couple of other products recently. Late last year it announced it would stop selling Windows Live OneCare, its consumer antivirus product. It also killed off a mobile browser research product last year.

Its rival Google has discontinued quite a few more offerings recently, presumably in response to pressure from the deteriorating economic conditions. Google has shut down Jaiku, Mashup Editor, Dodgeball, Catalog Search, Google Notebook and Print Ads.