In the history of modern media, it’s unlikely that anyone — at least, no one of similar size or scale — has embraced open principles more than Wikipedia. Co-founded by Jimmy Wales, the so-called “open-source encyclopedia” has grown to the point where it now encompasses 3.2 million articles, and is almost certainly far more influential than print-bound predecessors such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Although the site has a team of editors, known internally as “the cabal” (a wink to conspiracy theorists), and occasionally locks down contentious articles, the vast majority of the site is still open to anyone to edit.
As part of our ongoing series on the tension between “open” and “closed” across a range of industries and markets, I spoke to Wales via Skype from London. Our conversation follows, edited for clarity and length.
GigaOM: Where do you stand on the debate between open and closed standards? I’m assuming that given the nature of Wikipedia, you would probably come down on the open side.
Wales: Well, there are benefits and costs to both approaches, and a lot of those are well known at this point — although I do think that today, the open approach still isn’t as well understood as it should be, because it is a newer approach. There’s a big tendency to gravitate towards a closed and proprietary approach too easily, because it’s what [companies] know, it’s what they’re familiar with, and sometimes thinking up your business model in an open context is a lot harder. When you’ve got something closed and top-down and proprietary, you pretty much know what you’re going to do — you’re going to make something and then you’re going to put it in a box and sell it; and the box might be a downloadable box in the modern world, but it’s the same concept. Whereas with the open approach, it’s more about fostering an ecosystem and then making money in various other ways. What I would encourage people to do if they’re looking at doing something is to sort of step back and recognize the downsides of a proprietary approach.
GigaOM: Taking a more or less closed approach doesn’t seem to have hurt Apple — if anything, it seems to have succeeded more than anyone ever imagined, despite being closed. What are your thoughts on that?
Wales: If you look at the emerging competition between iPhone and Android, clearly the iPhone has the early edge, and of course Apple is quite good at what they do, their extreme controlling nature allows them to do certain things quite well. But at the same time, we’re seeing the beginning of a flood of new phones coming out from all kinds of different manufacturers…because of the open nature of the Android platform, and that’s going to pose a very interesting kind of competition. Google, in this instance, ironically, is more playing the Microsoft role here, to Apple’s Apple. One of the ways that Microsoft beat Apple way back in the day was that they were a lot more open; today, in the world I come from, the free software and open-source world, Microsoft is not generally viewed as open; they’re viewed as proprietary. But the truth is that compared to a lot of other companies, they really embraced a very open set of standards and had a very open platform, and it enabled them to gain dominance.
GigaOM: And what about the open approach when it comes to desktop software? Being open may have helped Microsoft in the early days, but it doesn’t seem to have helped Linux become competitive. Why?
Wales: One of the key pieces there for me is that there are some business models around Linux, but those business models — like Red Hat — have tended to focus on the server market, where certainly in the web-surfing world, the LAMP stack [Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP] is dominant. And it is dominant in that area in part because there emerged business models that made it possible for people to do things in a sustainable way, whereas Linux on the desktop so far hasn’t really generated a business model. If you think about Android, it can be open source, or very nearly open source, and that doesn’t hurt its chances of succeeding simply because Google has a business model around it that has nothing to do with selling the software. They can fund it, they can support it, and it makes business sense for them to do so, in a way that it has never made a lot of business sense for anybody to really spend the money to get Linux on the desktop to that kind of polished state.
GigaOM: So even if you are taking an open approach, you need to have a business model?
Wales: I’m not sure about the term business model, because if you think about Wikipedia, Wikipedia has a business model, but it’s not a business it’s a charity, and its business model — so to speak — is getting people to donate, because they love Wikipedia. So there isn’t a good buzzword for this, but you need a sustainability model; you need a model that brings in enough attention, revenue, whatever resources you need to make something happen in order to actually get it done. And what we’ve seen is that in open-source software, in some areas it’s worked and it’s great — so if you want a fabulous web server, and you want to scale up a web farm, the tools are free, they’re out there, there’s a whole ecosystem of developers, and it makes a lot of economic sense for people to participate in that ecosystem and it works. On the other hand, if you want to get your mom a laptop, I’m still not recommending Linux right now, because there hasn’t been an ecosystem, a sustainability ecosystem around making that happen in a really professional way.
GigaOM: There seems to be a belief that open systems are more free, but that they are also more chaotic and in some cases ugly, and that a closed approach like Apple’s works because it produces a uniform experience and high-quality design.
Wales: There’s definitely a lot of truth to that [but] at the same time, I don’t think it’s the whole story. We don’t have enough data points, really. We have Apple at one extreme and Linux at the other extreme, and Microsoft somewhere in the middle; so at one end you’ve got the highly controlled thing from a very controlling company that is obsessive about design; it’s proprietary, it’s top down, and it’s gorgeous, beautiful, elegant, simple design. And the open source thing is chaotic, hard, difficult, complicated — but also embodies a lot of amazing values, and it’s highly customizable, and really enjoyable if you like tinkering. You can do all kinds of things with it; it’s very powerful. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge the two. We can envision, for example, a proprietary system that is also complicated and difficult, but powerful because of the complicatedness and difficultness. But we can also imagine an open-source process that produces a really simple and clean design — I think probably Firefox is the best example.
GigaOM: And why did you decide that Wikipedia should be built on a completely open approach?
Wales: Nupedia (Wikipedia’s predecessor) was top-down and not very open — it was open source, but in terms of management it was centrally controlled. But it failed, because it wasn’t fun for the people who did it; it didn’t harness the passion of the individuals who were involved in that project. I think it’s fair to say that we couldn’t have built such a huge project with literally thousands of people without taking that kind of open approach — it just wouldn’t function. I suppose with a lot of money and time we could have created a traditional encyclopedia, but couldn’t have done this.
GigaOM: But Wikipedia has added controls to the system through the use of moderators and editors and so on, yes?
Wales: Yes, we’ve had to add some features like that. My view is that good community management is like having good municipal government: You should be able to have dissenting opinions and so on, freedom of speech, but your grandmother should also be able to walk down the street at night without having to worry about getting mugged. It’s a balance that you have to strike, where if you leave it alone then the trolls take over, but if you’re too central and controlling, then you can crush it, and we try to strike that balance.
GigaOM: I’m trying now to imagine what Wikipedia would be like if Steve Jobs ran it.
Wales: It would be interesting — it would probably be prettier, too.