A New Wiki on the Scene

Foswiki is good! One year after it's inception, foswiki is setting itself up as a great wiki engine. A wiki is a software platfo...

Foswiki is good!
One year after it's inception, foswiki is setting itself up as a great wiki engine.

A wiki is a software platform that facilitates collaborative web content development. Invented in 1995 by Ward Cunningham, this approach to content development was brought to serious public attention by Wikipedia, an attempt to create a collaborative encyclopedia of knowledge. While Wikipedia may have its problems as an encyclopedia, the software that makes it work, a wiki engine called MediaWiki, has become one of the gold standards of open source software.

But mediawiki isn't for everyone. It was developed specifically for the Wikipedia project, and so there are some applications for which it is just not good enough.

There are lots of other wiki engines out there. Wikimatrix.org, a site that lets users compare different wiki engines, lists hundreds of different implementations, many of which are free. Some, like Cunningham's original implementation and OddMuse, are small and simple. Others, like MediaWiki, TikiWiki, and MoinMoin are rather large, powerful, and complex. And others still, like Google Sites, limit functionality in favour of usability and security. There are even more powerful wiki systems that cost money, but my focus here is on the free ones.

A (sort of) new wiki has recently come on the scene, and I find it quite distinctive: foswiki.

I say it's sort of new, because it is a derivative of a rather well-known and powerful wiki engine called TWiki. Foswiki was founded about a year ago, when most of TWiki's core development team, dissatisfied with certain organizational decisions by TWiki's founder, Peter Thoeny, split off and founded foswiki. It seems that a key reason for the split involved Thoeny's desire to build a commercial business from TWiki. While there's nothing wrong with this generally, it seems that most of the developers wanted to continue working on a wiki engine that was more strictly open source and free. I think it's great that both wikis - TWiki and foswiki - are moving forward, because this kind of diversity can only serve users better by offering them greater choice. But the focus of this post is foswiki.

Foswiki, like TWiki, is more than just a wiki; it's more of a development platform for collaborative websites. It has a robust plugin system and a vigorously developed and extensive set of downloadable modules that extend its core functionality. It also has a templating system that allows one to largely rewrite its look and feel, which means you can develop your own website "brand" and still have its full functionality. Foswiki also embeds a WYSIWYG editor (TinyMCE, in case you were wondering) that let's users edit plain content pages without having to know much about the computer-y shorthand that is foswiki's internal markup language.

If there's a drawback to foswiki - and again the same can also be said about TWiki - it's that it tends to assume it's users are fairly computer literate. In other words, it was developed for programmers. This is evident in some of the syntax users need to use to access foswiki's more complex functions. I'm a programmer, so I can see why designed the syntax as they did: speed, flexibility, programming ease, and security. But for those of us that not among the digerati, the syntax can be quite obfuscated. And since there are so many installations of both TWiki and foswiki in world, changing the basic syntax would be a very, very hard sell.

This shortcoming is also evident in the WYSIWYG editor. Since it is third-party software, it cannot handle all of foswiki's own syntax. While it does render those extra bits relatively well, it isn't truly what you see is what you get. Still, if you're just writing plain text, it's perfectly adequate.

There are, however, some important differences between TWiki and foswiki, differences that I think position foswiki strategically ahead of TWiki in important ways.

In the year since its inception, foswiki's development team has both grown and been very busy. Addressing certain design flaws and removing significant bugs have been the main activities of the foswiki team. They have also worked very hard to establish a community of practise and organizational rules that will guarantee foswiki does not suffer the same kind of changes that happened to TWiki.

If you're a believer in true open source software, then I think foswiki is the way to go.

Foswiki also seems to run a lot faster than TWiki. And that's always good.

Another important difference is that the foswiki team has made user experience a very high priority. They are vitally interested in improving the usability of the software from the point of view of individual users - more so, I think, than the TWiki team, which seems to cater more to organizational and corporate concerns. I personally don't believe corporate concerns should ever trump individual concerns, so I prefer foswiki. Your mileage may vary.

This focus on user experience is not very evident yet, because the team has been focused on developing a viable code base that is distinct from its progenitor's. But I subscribe to the foswiki developers' mailing list, and I know there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes to significantly improve its usability. I expect to see some really impressive enhancements coming in the next year or so.

I've used many different wikis: MoinMoin, TWiki, MediaWiki, JSPwiki, Kwiki, OddMuse, wikispaces, Google Sites, and foswiki. I've even been developing my own wiki engine as part if a research project. But I keep coming back to foswiki. It's robust, flexible, powerful, usable, easy to manage, and secure. Even with its shortcomings, it's still my favourite.

So if you're looking for some really good wiki software that's very likely to just get better, you really should check out foswiki.

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The Trouble with Normal...: A New Wiki on the Scene
A New Wiki on the Scene
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The Trouble with Normal...
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