Ward Cunningham, Wiki Creator

Ward CunninghamThough the term is relatively new to many mainstream IT users, wiki has been around for nearly 12 years.

Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing the first wiki, called WikiWikiWeb, which he installed on his own Web site in 1995. Today, wiki usage and adoption within the enterprise are accelerating at a rapid clip.

Cunningham himself is still active within the wiki community, though his day job is at the Eclipse Foundation, which he joined in October 2005 after a brief stint working for Microsoft.

Internetnews.com recently caught up with Cunningham to talk about his role at Eclipse and about wiki past present and future.

Q: What are you doing at Eclipse?

My title is Director of Committer Community Development, committers being the people that have decision rights of what goes into the Eclipse code base. They are a diverse group and my job is to help them work together as a cohesive team.

Q: The Eclipse Foundation project uses the MediaWiki application (the same that is used by Wikipedia) as its wiki of choice. Is there any particular reason for that?

It was a decision made before I was there, but being a wiki guy I’ve always been impressed with MediaWiki. I do know we’ve exploited its plug-in architecture to connect to our account architecture.

My management allows me to participate in Wikimania, but I think it’s just a recognition of my position in that community and not any specific commitment of the Eclipse Foundation. In general the Eclipse Foundation is devoted to Eclipse, and our members fund us to make sure Eclipse is doing well, and if our members wanted to support other activities they would do so directly.

I have to admit Wikipedia is pretty awesome.

Q: What about a specific Wiki project at Eclipse? Are there any plans for that?

I know of several people I’ve met that have just mentioned off handedly that they are interested in wiki. I’m not sure if that is just because I’m part of the Eclipse Foundation and so are they, but they tell me about stuff they are doing but it’s not being done as part of an Eclipse project.

I’d love to see an Eclipse project do something seriously on Wiki. It’s not for me to do. I’m really there just to keep projects running smoothly and not to do project work.

Q: How does working for Eclipse differ from working for Microsoft?

The group I worked for at Microsoft was very customer focused and did short cycle development and gave it away. Sometimes they even thought of themselves like an open source arm of Microsoft. While I was there I released some material under the Creative Commons license the first time anything had ever come out of Microsoft as creative commons. I got support of management and legal for that.

The big companies at Eclipse are pioneering in a sense to a figure out how to cleanly use intellectual property. At Microsoft they almost always only wanted to use only their own intellectual property.

Q: Are you at all surprised about the rapid uptake of wiki in the enterprise this year in particular or is it more a case of why did it take so long?

It’s one of those exponential things. This was a tiny little thing that I did and I could tell when I first did it that it just felt right. I’ve seen so many good things just forgotten by our industry that I didn’t feel that just because it felt right that anything big was going to happen.

Maybe three years ago when the blogging craze started and everyone was trying to figure out what blogging was I got a lot of calls from reporters who were writing about blogging and then they would hear the word wiki. They’d say “what’s that?”

That just proves the value of a curious word.

Certainly in the last year or two, seeing Wikipedia fill out into being a very valuable resource is very rewarding. You can now go to Wikipedia and find an article an almost anything.

Q: What is the most interesting wiki-type application to you?

One of the earliest clones of my own wiki is Twiki and it has always been well supported by corporations.

I’ll tell you what I find most interesting is that in the last year or two, people are starting to refer to the word wiki as a style of interaction or an expectation of responsibility more than referring to a particular Web technology. I think that is what I’m most proud of.

Why would we think that a corporation wouldn’t trust its own employees?

Somehow you get computers involved and it’s so easy to put rules in, and we’ve just spent 30 years on computer programs that tell you not to do things and then all of sudden people say, “Oh we should write programs that let our employees use their own minds and do what they think is right without trying to control them with these rules we put in computer programs.”

What wiki really did is it didn’t do much for collaboration it just didn’t do anything against collaboration and that simple twist proves how much people want to collaborate.

I do appreciate the people that build on top of wikis and build new types of wikis that understand a particular user community and make a version of wiki that is suitable for a community.

Wikipedia did that; they understand the needs of an encyclopedia and they’ve made some variations on how wiki works.

Q: Did you ever consider patenting Wiki? Or is that something that runs counter to what you believe in?

You know I thought about patenting it 11 years ago and I was a small company and I figured, well, if I got a patent then I’d have to go out and sell people on the idea that anyone could edit. That just sounded like something that no one would want to pay money for.

I thought that the only thing I could really do with it is first of all support my own community. I really am more about improving the way software developers work, but I also thought, well, if it is more widely used it’ll just be a calling card and a way for people to know me. It certainly worked in that regard.

I’ve always gone for the idea that the idea is so simple that it sounds foolish until you’ve been shown that there is some misunderstanding.

The simplest ideas are probably the least technical. It’s just what I like to do and where I like to work. I don’t think that my best ideas will ever be patented.

Not that I’m against patents.

I do think that when you are trying to deploy stuff into the community that it really pays in advance to explain what rights you’re giving to people.

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