Why Wikipedia Will Win

Quiz time! Which one of these statements is true?

  • (a) Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) new productivity applications are overtaking Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Office suite of software.
  • (b) Google's Chinese search engine is on the verge of destroying Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) .
  • (c) Google Talk, though still lagging Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL Instant Messenger in market share, is the fastest-growing IM software tool.
  • (d) As of April, Gmail's market share was roughly 1/13th that of top dog Yahoo! Mail.

Any guesses? OK, fine. Here's your answer key:

  • (a) False. Google is positioning its apps as lightweight versions of what Mr. Softy offers.
  • (b) False. According to available data, Google's rise in China isn't coming at Baidu's expense.
  • (c) False. Over the last 10 months ending in July, Meebo was the top IM grower according to researcher Nielsen/NetRatings. Google Talk was third.
  • (d) True. Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) is dominant in digital e-mail. Its share of U.S. website visits was more than double its nearest rival -- Hotmail -- from February to April.

Here's my point: Save for the core search engine that launched the business, Google has a checkered history when it comes to displacing incumbents in the industries it enters.

Whither Wikipedia?
That's why the hyperventilating over Google's new Knol, or "knowledge unit," service makes little sense. This is no Wikipedia killer, Fool. It's a business experiment.

Or, better still, a land grab. Researcher Hitwise reports that, in the just-completed week, Wikipedia ranked 15th in market share of U.S. Internet visits. Google was responsible for just over half of that traffic. Now DoubleGoo wants to put up a stop sign.

Nothing unusual there. The Big G has been experimenting with hosted content for months at Google News. But hosting news and producing content are two very different ideas. And I believe that Google's approach with Knol has two really big flaws:

  • 1. Hey, we don't own this place. Google says it has no intention of owning or policing the content at Knol. Really? How's that going to work? I can't see how Google can credibly bill this as a source of expert commentary without policing the content as New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) does with About.com.
  • 2. Can I interest you in this set of encyclopedias? I realize we live in an ad-driven culture, but I'm not at all sure that encyclopedia ads, as Google is planning with Knol, make sense. Sure, it might be appropriate to pitch scuba diving off the coast of Australia for the entry for the Great Barrier Reef, but pushing cosmetic surgery in the entry for breast cancer would be at best tasteless and possibly a lot worse.

To be fair, Wikipedia has well-defined (and well-deserved) credibility issues of its own. But I see nothing in Knol that will foster a more authoritative source of comment. If anything, it'll be more corruptible because the company profiting from the service -- Google -- has already said it won't lift a finger to protect the brand it's creating.

Wonderful.

You can't kill open source
Perhaps I'm biased. I've contributed cash to the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's non-profit parent. My donation is a reflection of my personal belief in the power of open source business models. To me, Wikipedia is open source knowledge.

And its contributing community is huge. Nearly 38,000 have donated to Wikimedia in this season of giving. I realize that we can't assume that every donor is also a contributor of content to Wikipedia. (I haven't, save for an annoying typo I once fixed.) Yet I doubt more than 1% -- or 159 -- of Google's employees will spend time on Knol. That's a pretty low bar for Wikipedia to clear.

Consider, too, the history of success open source has enjoyed in other areas. Linux, for example. The operating system popularized by Red Hat (NYSE: RHT  ) has become an increasingly popular alternative for data centers. IDC reports that Linux accounted for 13.4% of all server revenue in the third quarter, up from 12.7% in Q1 of 2007.

Translation: Linux, and open source, is here to stay. So is Wikipedia.


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