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What went wrong in the wiki market?

The wiki market was a central part of the enterprise 2.0 wave, but faded away before taking hold. But its defining characteristics did seep into other collaboration tools.

During the 1990s, wikis seemed to offer a more lightweight, agile and less complex answer to traditional web content management systems.

Whereas traditional WCM systems required know-how and took many steps to publish content, wikis enabled users to publish content quickly, easily and without a lot of fuss.

But then the wiki market lost favor as a web publishing tool. What went wrong with wikis? Here we explain how the "wiki way" is in fact more pervasive than ever, though many early wiki providers have pivoted to other domains.

The wonder of wikis

Created in 1994, the first wiki was designed to foster programmers' collaboration. The wiki way ushered breakthrough simplicity into a market struggling with complex and costly web content management tools. Some defining wiki characteristics were:

  • You didn't have to be an HTML nerd or pay for specialized tools to work with wiki content; all you needed was a browser.
  • It was easy to use hypertext conventions, e.g., using CamelCase or similar formatting to create links to other pages or create new pages. (In many wiki tools, for example, typing [[Product Page]] would create a link to a page with that name, if it existed; if not, a new page was created.)
  • Wikis defaulted to an egalitarian approach, for access control; by default, anybody could edit any page.
  • Wikis also seamlessly supported versioning, making it easy to compare page versions and roll-back to earlier versions when necessary.

For many people, the ability to create and collaborate in web page content was a huge step forward, relative to the earlier mainstream approaches such as sharing content via email message file attachments or proprietary platforms such as Lotus Notes. Many popular early wiki platforms -- such as MediaWiki and TWiki -- were also open source and available as hosted services, making wikis more accessible and affordable. The wiki market was often liberating for businesspeople who otherwise had to wrestle with more complex and costly alternatives that required supported by their IT groups.

By the time the term "Enterprise 2.0" was coined in 2006, encompassing wikis, blogs, enterprise social networks and other capabilities, during a period when social software was becoming a major industry focus, several wiki-focused startups were getting a lot of attention, and Wikipedia had become one of the most-visited websites in the world.

A wiki wasteland?

The initial wave of wiki enthusiasm was followed by a sustained social software stall, and many of the promising startups focused on wikis and related enterprise 2.0 trends faltered. Some were acquired and integrated into vertical or horizontal application suites. For example, CubeTree was acquired by SuccessFactors, which was in turn acquired by SAP, and Socialtext was merged into PeopleFluent. JotSpot, a pioneering startup that extended the wiki model for content-centric application development, was acquired by Google and later partially reincarnated as Google Sites, but most of JotSpot's innovative wiki extensions were never seen again.

Widely deployed enterprise platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Connections also added wiki capabilities, further challenging wiki specialist vendors by making what might be considered good-enough wiki support available at no extra cost. Atlassian's Confluence platform has been a rare commercial wiki success story (although, tellingly, you won't find the word "wiki" on the Confluence home page), in part because Confluence has strong synergy with other Atlassian offerings such as HipChat, a collaboration tool, and JIRA, project tracking software. Open source options such as MediaWiki and Twiki are also still widely used, but, in the bigger picture, the commercial part of the wiki wave mostly hit a wall.

The new wave: Wiki in everything but name

If we revisit the defining attributes of the wiki market, however, there's a strong case the wiki way has been successful despite the fact that many wiki-focused startups ultimately didn't prosper. For example, if you consider modern mainstream web content tools and services, including document and management services such as Google Drive and Office Online, they have many wiki-like characteristics:

  • You don't need to be an HTML nerd and can also easily collaborate while using apps on your mobile devices as well as traditional browser clients.
  • Hypertext and multimedia authoring are now the norm, even in the latest versions of popular productivity apps, and conventions made popular in consumer-oriented services -- e.g., favorites, likes, in-context conversations, inline videos and more -- are rapidly gaining enterprise momentum.
  • While not as egalitarian as the early wiki model, it's much easier to use collaborative workspaces today.
  • Content versioning is now the norm, although it's so seamlessly integrated that many users probably don't realize it's available until they need it.

The next major updates of mainstream platforms such as Atlassian Confluence, Google Apps, and Office 365 will bring more beyond-the-basics hypertext support, such as embedding inline documents, spreadsheets and presentations rather than linking to shared files and pages, making it possible for people to stay more focused on their work activities and simplifying single-source-of-truth content management.

Results may vary

As has always been the case in content and collaboration endeavors, however, success requires more than simply adopting new technologies. Organizations that provide clear guidance on best practices and tool or service selection will likely achieve improvements in productivity and responsiveness, while employees who aren't provided guidance and training will likely revert to what has worked for them in the past, often with unfortunate content control consequences.

If you seek some of the lightweight agility that the wiki market offers, here are options to consider in future mainstream platforms:

  • Atlassian Confluence is likely the most successful commercial content and collaboration platform that started with a wiki foundation.
  • Some new SharePoint tools OneNote, for example -- has supported many wiki-related conventions, including wiki words, for many years.
  • The next major update to Google Sites (in beta as of mid-2016), which is a radical simplification relative to "classic" Google Sites.
  • Quip, is a fast-moving startup focused on content and communication that was founded by Facebook and Google alumni. 

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