How Ward Cunningham invented wikis

By July 23, 2007

After meeting Ward Cunningham, there is no doubt that Portland, wedged between Seattle and the Bay Area, holds a special place in the world of computers. Wikis are the embodiment of the area’s social values, idealism and pioneer s

pirit. An Oregonian for the past 25 years, Ward Cunningham (on left on the picture) has a long history in introducing new ideas to the world of programming. While working in research and development at Tektronix, a local high-tech heavy-weight, Cunningham would often engage co-workers in programming challenges. “Using Smalltalk in the 70s, we would program without designing. It was like photography, you take a lot of photos and just keep the good ones,” he recalls. In 18 months, 15 viable projects were transferred to product groups within the company, proving the merits of his methodology. Picture: AbouUs CTO Ward Cunningham and AboutUs CEO Ray King “In research, you look for hard problems. In commercial programming, you are trying to avoid them. When I left Tektronix to write financial software, I wanted to keep that feeling of productivity while solving a customer problem.” What became known as extreme programming and agile programming was a way to deliver new software to a client in two-week cycles, with new functionality constantly added without boxing oneself into a corner or having new features breaking old ones. “Traditionally, a manager would have 12 tasks and give each programmer a task. The twist in agile programming is to select only the 3 main tasks and work together on them, often in pair programming with two people sitting in front of the same computer,” explains Cunningham. “I worked at Microsoft and they were not willing to try it there because of the culture of private offices. But my sense is that 50% to 90% of programming now uses some aspect of agile programming which is an umbrella term for a variety of methods.” The next step was to figure out the recipe for good programming. If one could find the patterns that created good programming and share the information, productivity would increase. But writing these “rules” down was far from easy. At a conference in 1984, Cunningham put a call out to programmers to help him build a list of those patterns. At the conference, he also discovered a program called Mosaic, the original Internet browser. The logical step was to create a program that would let programmers write and contribute their own rules directly on the Internet. “It was just a crummy word processor that had hyperlinks. Using the interface, you could edit and immediately see the changes. It was the first wiki,” recalls Cunningham. “I emailed the address of the program to 500 people and people started joining in because it was fun to be around famous people from the programming community.” The concept nearly got called “Quick Web”. But Cunningham remembered that wiki means quick in Hawaiian and that doubling a word reinforces its meaning. The first wiki was born.   The Portland Pattern Repository still lives on, though Cunningham feels it is a finished project. But wikis have had a lasting impact on the Internet way beyond the programming community. “Yes, wikis are often ugly because we associate beauty with brochures. But brochure-ware is the work of one company. The power of wikis is that many people get to contribute and it creates something more interesting. To me, the Web 2.0 is basically a wiki showing that the Internet has lots of capabilities beyond being a shopping mall.”   One of the most famous wikis is probably Wikipedia. “Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, came to me and asked me if a wiki could work for an encyclopedia. I told him that he would have a wiki, not an encyclopedia. A wiki has to have a purpose. People are not there to be social, but to change something.”   Wikis have also crossed over to the business world. “Private wikis are replacing Intranets. It is a low-cost solution that can stay alive instead of a clunky Intranet. It can be a transformative experience.” Of course, wikis now have their very own conference. After Frankfurt and Boston, the next one will be held in Taipei August 3-5. At Wikimania in Frankfurt two years ago, Cunningham met fellow Portlander Ray King and eventually went to work with him. But that is another story. Isabelle Boucq   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at

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