Where's the Movable Type of the Wiki World?

by Scot Hacker


A few months ago, one of the instructors I serve while wearing my webmaster hat asked me to attach a wiki to his class' website. I'd been meaning to start testing various wiki systems for a while, and this was the perfect opportunity to dig in.





The only wiki I had previously installed anywhere was Wakka. The experience had gone very well - easy to set up, did most of the things I needed it to do, was fairly easy to customize. But when I went looking for it again, was disappointed to find it had become open-source roadkill - an abandoned project without so much as a homepage remaining to memorialize it.




Being partial to PHP/MySQL solutions, I headed for phpWiki. At first blush, phpWiki seemed like a great replacement with a solid development community behind it. A few installation glitches, and some confusion over whether to use a provided wizard for installation configuration or to edit the configuration text file, but once up and running, I was fairly satisfied, even though it didn't support linking of Chinese characters to full Chinese URLs (yes, this is possible! However, it is not possible to paste such URLs into the O'Reilly weblog back-end without them breaking, so you'll have to click a link from within the Chinese wikipidia once there to see what I mean).




Months passed before the class was ready to rock with their wiki. Meanwhile, I worked on other projects, including an upgrade to PHP5 (required by a CMS I'm testing for another project). Finally, the time came to prepare for launch. Checked back in with the wiki, only to find it completely broken - turns out the current version of phpWiki is incompatible with PHP5. Worse, there were rumblings in the phpWiki user forums that the project was starting to lose momentum and direction. No new downloads had appeared on the SourceForge site since last March. Another great open source project left to rust by lack of direction/enthusiasm.




That left me scrambling, with a week to find a replacement. Checked out MoinMoin (obscure installation procedure left a bad taste in my mouth) and TikiWiki (everything-including-the-kitchen-sink portal software that just happens to include a wiki module -- I want a streamlined, dedicated app). And today TikiWiki's homepage is inaccessible.




Finally, the light went on. Since we were using WikiPedia as an inspiration for the class project, why not use what they were using? Duh. MediaWiki is the platform on which the incredible and vast WikiPedia is built. Found most of the links to the download broken at the SourceForge mirrors, but eventually found one that worked. Installation, unlike many of the wikis I sampled, was a breeze.




MediaWiki is a great platform, and does support full Chinese URLs, but its documentation is scattered and obtuse. Even simple things like figuring out where the administrative access page for the system is, or which files need to be edited to customize the system (the "templates" directory contains only one file, which does not appear to be template related) were stupidly difficult. The problem wasn't confined to administrative documentation - the system didn't come with any user-level documentation either -- I had to copy/paste help pages out of WikiPedia's wiki into our own just to provide assistance for our users. Ridiculous.




Yes, I know - if I don't like the state of an open source project, I can help fix it. And I'd love to. But I just. Don't. Have. Time. I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth here, I'm just saying that the public distribution didn't feel quite ready for prime time.




Overall, I was left with the overwhelming impression that the wiki world desperately needs its own Movable Type - a system that's cleanly designed, clearly and logically documented, easy to customize, has momentum and traction, an expansive and supportive user community... I'm predisposed to open source solutions, but would certainly pay a small/reasonable sum for a commercially supported, high-quality wiki (our .edu budget doesn't leave us piles of money to throw around - I'm talking $100 here, not thousands).




On a side note, I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that wikis aren't necessarily the best place to provide documentation -- yes, they're easy to contribute to, but they tend towards meandering, non-hierarchical layouts and can be rough for end-users to follow.




Yes, there are wiki services out there we could take advantage of, such as SocialText and SeedWiki, but I'm committed to keeping all school content hosted on school servers - I've been burned going down that road before when services went belly up.




It seems that the wiki universe is being built by extreme geeks. Which is great - that's where all the good stuff comes from. But at a certain point, a good software project needs the kind of vision that will make the product more accessible, more polished, less prone to abandonment or neglect. The blogging world got there a while ago. It's time for the wiki world to catch up.



What great wiki opportunities am I missing here?


22 Comments

jmenard
2004-10-25 13:10:01
Instiki
Instiki has a three step installation process:



  1. Download

  2. Run “instiki.rb” with Ruby 1.8.1 or greater

  3. Chuckle... There’s no step three! :)


You can tell it to use one of a few different formats: Textile, Markdown, or RDoc.

aristotle
2004-10-25 13:13:17
Another option
Take a look at Kwiki sometime. For small projects, it's great -- takes a minute to set up and you're all set. It's far less featureful than MediaWiki of course, and I don't know if it supports chinese URLs, but if you need something simple in a pinch, it works great.
tom_hoffman
2004-10-25 13:19:59
Instiki
+1 on Instiki.
mariuss
2004-10-25 13:53:44
Try MoinMoin again
Have a second look at MoinMoin, it is an excellent piece of software and installation is not as bad as it seems.


I tried out quite a few Wikis as well and MoinMoin is the only one I use and install.


Marius

jaaron
2004-10-25 14:37:01
Several available
Personally, I like MoinMoin, but there is also some commercial wiki software out there such as Atlassian's Confluence and the new JotSpot wiki software that, though beta, looks promising.
TomDavies
2004-10-25 15:35:57
Confluence
Confluence is a good, commercially supported, Wiki.


An unlimited user academic licence is USD 2000, over the price range you asked for, but if you could spread it over a few classes it might average out OK?


(I'm just a satisfied customer)

ben@atlassian.com
2004-10-25 16:18:19
Have you tried Confluence
The team over hear at Atlassian have built a professional wiki that is free for Open Source projects and non-profit organisations.


Confluence includes features rarely seen in wiki software: security, blogging, refactoring, HTML/PDF exporting, a remote API, easy installation. Commercial licenses include source access.


Confluence is currently used by over 150 organisations including: Boeing, Pixar, Stanford University, Vodafone, Deutsche Bank, BMW, World Bank and more.


You can read more here: http://www.atlassian.com/confluence/

vishvishvanath1
2004-10-25 16:31:09
coWiki - almost a wiki
Yeah, so it's a pseudowiki. But it's *sooooo* good!


I use it myself, and it *needs* php5. http://www.boredskaters.com/ Clean and mean.


And Plone have a nice wiki setup - it's one of *the* great CMSs around. Anyone who says otherwise needs to really look into it. I used to slag it off. Until I made it work. Wowie.

Eloquence
2004-10-25 17:15:44
Some notes on MediaWiki
I'm typing this in Konqueror because for some reason, the O'Reilly login is endlessly redirecting in Mozilla. I'm pointing this out just as an example that proprietary software development isn't some magic pill which will solve your problems. In fact, in many cases, it's the exact opposite. Especially in the field of web development, open source software tends to kick the ass of proprietary software any day, because so many people can easily contribute to something written in PHP or Python.


I'm one of the many developers of MediaWiki. With regard to the MediaWiki documentation, I would point out that there's a MediaWiki handbook in the works on our Meta-Wiki. Systematic work on it has started only a couple of months ago, and many documents are still scattered about (mostly on Meta), but it's getting there.


MediaWiki development is perhaps more chaotic than that of many other open source projects which were started with a clear vision in mind. The vision of MediaWiki developed as Wikipedia progressed and got its first sister projects - Wikiquote, Wikisource, Wikibooks, Wiktionary. The wiki software didn't even have a proper name until July 2003. The good thing about it is that it is constantly being pushed forward by the needs of the Wikimedia Foundation projects, that there is a huge user community which reviews what we are doing and shouts at us if we screw up, and that the risk of abandonment is virtually non-existent.


I would either advise you to wait a while until MediaWiki documentation matures, or to use one of the wiki hosting services, such as Wikidev.net or myoo.de. One of the many benefits of open source is that anyone can start such a service, instead of just Ben and Mena.

stevecassidy
2004-10-25 17:54:11
CourseForum
Take a look at ProjectForum/CourseForum which is a commercially supported wiki implementation specifically designed for education. It's very easy to install (single file download, multiple platforms) and adds some useful features to the standard wiki idea.


PeterThoeny
2004-10-25 22:56:11
TWiki - the Wiki for the Enterprise
TWiki might be a solution if you are looking for a Wiki to deploy inside your firewall. It is a Wiki in its core, but it allows you also to give structure to unstructured Wiki content.


TWiki is a web based collaboration platform where users can create light-weight applications without reverting back to programming. This can be done by people with modest skill sets using the functionality of the TWiki core and installed Plugins.


As in Movable Type, you can customize the look with skins. It is not as easy to install as some other Wikis, but you get a lot of flexibility with currently 130 Plugins, 35 add-on packages, and 27 Skin packages available for download at TWiki.org.

guppie
2004-10-26 06:22:38
DokuWiki
I went through this several weeks ago when setting up the trouble-maker project over on source forge.
I started with TikiWiki, and strongly agree with the kitchen sink metaphor. It was masively overpowered for what I needed. After more research, I settled on DokuWiki. It's easy to install, and fast!
It's not the best one out there, by any means, but I find it is well suited to documentation and note taking, which is what I needed for that project.
jcwinnie
2004-10-26 07:12:39
Try MoinMoin again
Or, try MoniWiki which is quite similar yet uses PHP rather than Python.
RomanIvanov
2004-10-26 07:50:17
WackoWiki
Did you ever seen WackoWiki?
seitz
2004-10-26 10:28:03
hierarchy layout
The joy of easy linking-by-name that wiki gives you means that you can make your FrontPage a bulleted hierarchy of links to specific pages, and change that organization at any time without breaking any links.


(Remember, a hierarchy is just one view/model of the information.)


http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/z2004-06-26-TufteBabyBookIaQuote

raster
2004-10-26 15:06:29
UseModWiki


I really like UseModWiki - http://www.usemod.com/



The first time I installed it, I probably spent a little bit of time getting it running, but since then I've dropped it on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X boxes, and had it up and running in a matter of minutes.



It might not be as full featured as the others (then again, it might be and I didn't notice or care) but it does what I need it to do.


jamesbrayton
2004-10-28 20:45:13
coWiki
http://www.develnet.org/20.html


Haven't used it myself, but it's PHP5. The testimonials make it sound good. (suprise)

shantanuo
2004-10-29 06:20:27
No proper documentation
I agree with you on the following 2 points on mediawiki.


>> or which files need to be edited to
>> customize the system (the "templates"
>> directory contains only one file,
>> which does not appear to be template
>> related) were stupidly difficult.
>> The problem wasn't confined to administrative
>> documentation - the system didn't come with any
>> user-level documentation either


I was surprised to know that red color text that distinguish the differences while comparing old version of the page with current one, DOES NOT PRINT IN RED!


I could not figure out how to change this behavior. I asked in the mailing list but did not get any response.


Documentation (not in a wiki format) is really needed.

bshanks
2004-10-29 23:29:23
too many wiki engines
i feel that the underlying problem is that the wiki developer community is split; as you might imagine from the previous comments, there are hundreds of wiki software packages, and each project only has a few developers working on it. if we could just focus development effort a little more i think we could achieve what you want.
bshanks
2004-10-29 23:35:19
too many wiki engines discussion
see this page for more discussion about the problem of having developer effort split over so many wiki engines: CommunityWiki:TooManyWikiEngines
el_wombato
2004-11-01 22:19:30
VoodooPad
You should look into VoodooPad, which I've heard good things about.
Bytesmiths
2005-03-10 14:11:01
Help is available!
I too was frustrated with the lack of documentation and help in MediaWiki. I "fixed" that by going in and changing just a couple embedded URLs -- the main help and editing help. These now point off to Meta's general help and editing help, respectively.


I really like the easy InterWiki access to Wikimedia Foundation sites. When I have an important term that I don't have time to write a page for, yet don't want to leave a dangling link, I just mark it up [[WikiPedia:like this|]], and it ends up going off to the WikiPedia page.


My biggest beef right now is the inability to turn of the complicated caching. There's a nice extension API that I want to exploit, but it's useless for dynamic media. I made a simple fortune(6) extension, but it always displays the same fortune, due to caching. The developers have said this will be very difficult to fix.


Bottom line: I think MediaWiki is the "Movable Type of the Wiki World" -- it just needs a few more revs under its belt!