Friday, March 20, 2009

TWiki vs MediaWiki part 1 - wiki prehistory

Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to test out various wikis, for teams within my previous company, Devinition. I've learned that wikis are great, but that even some of the well-known wiki engines are pretty awful. I'll use a few blog posts to write down my likes and dislikes, so you don't have to go down the road that we did - trying out everything under the sun and ending up with a whole bunch of incompatible page graveyards.

We started out with TikiWiki, back in 2005. TikiWiki certainly has tons of features built-in, but I disliked it from the start because it looked like a typical Open Source 0.1 product. (I assume - and hope for its users - that recent versions have better looks).

Then we implemented an XWiki for the whole company. Primarily because it seemed the Java-based wiki with the best features at the time, and I optimistically thought that with all the Java skills in our company we could do some great integration magic with it. Instead it quickly instilled fear with its horrible user permissions interface. We've had to resort to direct access to the underlying SQL database only once, when some colleagues messed up the permissions beyond normal repair with only a few easy keystrokes. Interesting though it was - trying to get the correct settings back again while puzzling through a meta-meta model - it put XWiki on my avoid-in-the-future-at-all-cost list. However, at that point our teams had already put quite a number of pages into it, so it was really too late to migrate away.

As a kind of in-between snack I used Google Docs with some smaller teams. It works great, but it's not really a wiki replacement of course. Instead it has an excellent spreadsheet feature, and it lets you easily share a few documents with random people. My golden tip of the day is for Google: simply add a 'wiki page' document type to Docs with concurrent editing and support for adsense display and it will run circles around Google Sites and 99% of the existing web hosting.

At that point I also started using a personal wiki. It coincided with reading David Allens 'Getting Things Done'. In my experience they are a great match. A personal wiki is easily flexible enough to act as a store for all your GTD administration (project lists, actions, reference data, etc.) Looking at it from the other side - a wiki can quickly become a mess of random pages and the GTD method provided for useful structure. I'll leave the details of my GTD approach for a next post, but just finish by saying that I used a TWiki, perhaps because it was the next well-known Open Source wiki that I hadn't tried yet.

In part 2 I describe why TWiki is better than all the other wikis, and how it beat MediaWiki in a fierce dinosaur-style battle.

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