Late last year, an $890,000 grant was awarded to the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit behind Wikipedia). It was dedicated solely to a new Usability Initiative for improvements to MediaWiki.

Now, the first designs and prototypes have been made public.

Though only a fraction of what's in store, the work done so far is showing real promise not just for Wikipedia's future, but for MediaWiki in all instances. In a down economy, a new-and-improved MediaWiki could likely compete with more expensive and cumbersome enterprise collaboration solutions.

Enter the Usability Initiative

The Wikipedia Usability Initiative exists to draw in new volunteer editors to the free encyclopedia by making MediaWiki more user-friendly. The first step was an exhaustive study that revealed the weaknesses that make the current version of the software intimidating and frustrating to newcomers.

Unveiled June 2nd, the initial designs are of basic improvements to skinning, navigation tabs, search results and the edit toolbar. They're currently up and running on prototype sites, and should be available as an option in Wikipedia user preferences by July.

What the Future Holds

The first mock-ups may not exactly be mind-blowing, but they're just the beginning. We spoke recently with Usability Initiative Program Manager, Naoko Komura, and she outlined some bold next steps. Concepts being explored include easier media uploading, a real-time preview system, and (most importantly) reducing or hiding the extremely complex wiki syntax that creates tables and templates in MediaWiki.

One idea that's not being entertained is moving away from syntax altogether.

Nearly all enterprise wikis have implemented a WYSIWYG editor. Even ones that began with MediaWiki, like Mindtouch, quickly replaced wiki syntax with XHTML. The Initiative has attempted to draw on the experience of companies like Mindtouch, whose CEO, Aaron Fulkerson, told ReadWriteWeb he was impressed with the Initiative, but that he felt, "wiki text will always and forever be inferior to XHTML."

WYSIWYG editors are already available for MediaWiki through extensions, but the potential for corrupting the data that makes up Wikipedia's encyclopedic content is very real. Avoiding that scenario is primarily what lead the Initiative to discount a switch to WYSIWYG, at least within the scope of the project.

MediaWiki in the Enterprise Again?

Even with the retention of wiki syntax, the Usability Initiative may see a revival of not just Wikipedia's openness to contributors, but MediaWiki's suitability for more business-like use.

Licenses and subscriptions for enterprise collaboration platforms are looking more expensive than ever. In 2009, more companies are clearly seeking to upgrade and improve software they already use, rather than start fresh. Despite its quirks, organizations like Intel have maintained large and productive installations of MediaWiki for years.

The Usability Initiative's core goal is to improve the software with potential Wikipedians in mind. But an unintended consequence of the project may very well be that MediaWiki regains respect in the enterprise.