Something Wiki This Way Comes

They're Web sites anyone can edit -- and they could transform Corporate America

When software developer Nicholas Pisarro Jr. saw his first wiki late last year, he knew it was unlike any Web site he had ever seen. On the site, a free online encyclopedia called Wikipedia, thousands of volunteers had written a breathtaking 500,000 articles in 50 languages since 2001 -- all thanks to the defining feature of wikis. To contribute, all they had to do to was click on an "edit this page" button and start typing.

Now, Pisarro has wikis transforming the way people work at the company he founded, software maker Aperture Technologies Inc. Two dozen of the Stamford (Conn.) company's 100 employees use them to brainstorm, track projects, write and edit documentation, and coordinate marketing. That has eliminated countless meetings, conference calls, and back-and-forth e-mails. Says Pisarro: "Wikis allow this collaboration much better than anything else, so we get things done faster."

The amazing thing is that wikis work at all. Created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham, who named them for the "Wiki-Wiki," or "quick" shuttle buses at Honolulu Airport, wikis are special Web sites on which anyone can post material without knowing arcane programming languages. Likewise, anyone can edit them. This can lead to mischief: Jokers have posted images of male anatomy on Wikipedia. But graffiti is usually gone within minutes, because the previous version of a page can be restored with a click. In sensitive corporate situations, access can be controlled, too.

That's one reason the onetime nerd novelty is infiltrating the corporate world. Peter Thoeny, creator of TWiki, a leading open-source wiki program, says at least 35,000 people have downloaded TWiki since 2001. Two-thirds of his programs are going into businesses -- Walt Disney (DIS ), SAP (SAP ), and Motorola (MOT ) among them.

To capitalize on the opportunity, startups such as Socialtext Inc. are selling wiki software. Ultimately, though, it's likely that wikis will be pulled into collaboration software such as IBM's (IBM ) Lotus Workplace. Like open-source software, wikis may make their biggest mark less as a business than as a potent force for change -- in this case, in the way people work.

Nowhere is that potential more apparent than in today's far-flung, time-pressed corporate teams. Aaron Burcell, director of marketing for e-mail software startup Stata Laboratories Inc., says working on a wiki has cut the daily phone calls he made on a raft of projects to one a week. It also has allowed Stata to outsource more work, such as engineering, to India. Says Burcell: "I could justify the cost of the wiki just from the lower teleconferencing bills."

Wikis may find their way into more public use. Adam Hertz, vice-president for technology strategy at Eastman Kodak Co.'s (EK ) online photo unit, Ofoto, is mulling their potential outside corporate walls: Shutterbugs could use them to let relatives and friends contribute stories about photos in their collections. Before long, we may all be hopping a ride on a wiki.

By Robert D. Hof in San Mateo, Calif.

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