Wikipedia’s new apps are good for you, but they’re even better for the developing world

Wikipedia

To many in the United States and Europe, Wikipedia is a website, not an app. Its mobile site is excellent, and it enjoys Spotlight integration in iOS, which takes you to the mobile browser, not a specific app. So why would Wikipedia spend the time and money, as a nonprofit living off donations, to build slick new native apps for iOS and Android?  The answer lies in the developing world and Wikipedia’s nonprofit mission.

The new apps, which came out last month on Google Play and on Thursday for the Apple App Store, are pretty great: addressing many of the issues with the previous versions, which were more like a webpage wrapped in an app, both apps are pretty, fast, and packed with new features. The interface is stripped down and clean, and users can now edit Wikipedia from within the apps. There’s a “save article” option which downloads an article to read when there’s no internet service.

You might never use its most important new feature

The most important new feature in the Wikipedia apps is compatibility with Wikipedia Zero, a program that the Wikimedia Foundation has been working on since 2011. The program means that subscribers to certain cellular operators will be able to access Wikipedia without being charged for the data transferred, and the new app displays a confirmation icon when data is free. Most people in developed markets will never need this feature, and their carriers are unlikely to support it. But for some in emerging markets, it will be a lifesaver. There’s also improved support for users who need to switch from one language to another.

The other features included in the release are also great for people in developing markets. For instance, “save article” might seem silly as people in developed nations are rarely without cellular service, with a few exceptions like the subway. But for someone in countries like India with notoriously spotty 3G access, it could be really handy. The feature lets one person with a smartphone travel to an area with internet access, like the neighborhood wi-fi hotspot, load up the Wikipedia app with useful info, and head back to the countryside. Or users could simply save an a useful reference article and read it when the network is acting finicky.

Even mobile editing turns out to be enormously forward-looking. My first reaction was to be skeptical; After all, it’s hard to add well-researched citations when you’re hunting and pecking on a small screen. Editing Wikipedia seems like the perfect use case for the desktop. But there’s currently a huge push to get smartphones in the hands of people in developing countries — “the next five billion mobile users,” as Google SVP Sundar Pichai said when introducing Android One. For the vast majority of first-time smartphone owners, their phone is going to be their first and only computer. So why restrict them from contributing to Wikipedia?

A difference in mission

Wikipedia Zero has been compared to Internet.org, Facebook’s program to provide basic internet access in emerging markets. But Facebook’s mission is to grow in order to keep its shareholders happy, and internet.org restricts users to a few websites that happen to include Facebook’s for-profit services. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and its stated goal is to empower people globally to create free educational content, and also to distribute that information as effectively as possible. These two new apps mark an important step to advance that genuinely altruistic mission.

Personally, I probably won’t be using the Wikipedia Mobile app. Wikipedia in the browser is good enough for me, thanks. But I’m very glad it exists.

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