RealTime IT News

Making Wikis Less Flaky

Erin Joyce Collaboration is finally becoming a reality in the enterprise, thanks to the growth of wikis outside of consumer groups and applications. Finally, one of the early promises of the Web is getting close.

As internetnews.com reported recently, Gartner predicts that half of all U.S. companies will be wiki people within three years. This stat, in my view, assumes that wikis will continue to improve along with that growth. Here's hoping.

I say this based on the ones I've tested over the past few months, not to mention a bunch that other internetnews.com editors have test-driven this year. If you are currently using a wiki, you know what I'm talking about.

They're just still flaky, especially the burgeoning wiki feature of offering group calendars along with sharing the same page or "whiteboard" on a Web site.

Calendars are a great feature, but many wiki packages with this feature are slow and bug-ridden. Another cool feature wikis are offering is online spreadsheets.

But those too have a way to go in the collaboration movement. The online programs promise an inkling of the functionality you get on a desktop application.

All of a sudden, you're mulling tradeoffs: what's easier, the endless million different versions of a changing spreadsheet to send around, or a primitive version on a wiki that can do only a few of the things we really need in that spreadsheet?

That's what Google's writely and online office applications are like, and that pretty much explains how JotSpot, which is the tech press darling among smaller wiki providers, can function like at times.

That's not to say wikis, Jotspot's included (free and paid) aren't hot, and gaining traction among business buyers. I'm just saying plenty of them are still hoggy, buggy and prone to crashing.

They're getting there, and vendors know this: They're betting that wikis are baked enough for enterprise adoption, which helps explain why IBM is also gearing up for a wiki release, and why Microsoft has staked a big chunk of its future business strategy on collaboration.

The staff of internetnews.com has been testing out a 128-bit encrypted paid wiki from a well-known vendor for the past few months now.

We enjoy the online whiteboarding aspect, capturing our knowledge and brilliance behind the assets we create when we collaborate. But it's not so great when documents mysteriously disappear. And they have.

We've just lost data. Poof. Page is gone. And believe me, it's not that easy to delete pages. No, it was a bug somewhere in the application the folks we were paying for this service had yet to work out.

We were able to get a chunk of the lost data back, but not before multiple e-mails, calls, more e-mails and calls asking for somebody to get back to us.

We've seen similar issues with tests on all kinds of wiki software, some free, some paid. It takes server maintenance and support that many enterprises didn't anticipate.

Which makes Google's recent purchase of JotSpot all the more intriguing. Will the developers at Google make it more stable? Odds are good there, with all the talent Google's sucking out of the IT world.

JotSpot users might now have another problem on their hands: What will the privacy policy on their wiki data be with its new owners?

Google itself is cagey about privacy in a world where everyone's watching to see what everyone else is searching, what keywords they're using, and how relevant that is to everything else.

JotSpot is not taking any new registrations since Google announced it was buying the provider (rumors are it was about a $50 million price tag). So users will just have to wait and see how service level agreements are struck and what kind of privacy policy changes they're in for.

Wikis and collaboration tools are well overdue. But, right now, many remind me of teenagers: full of promise, brimming with energy and talent, and a bit wild. Some may be ready for their driver's permits, but just not quite ready to shuttle the family around midtown Manhattan on a Friday.

But like teenagers, wikis are growing fast into adulthood. The good news is that improvement is well underway by smart developers who understand the huge opportunities with wikis in the enterprise, especially as they mature from their flaky ways.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internet.com's news channel.