A few weeks ago, Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia and an evangelist for a more open technological culture, said something that helps to reframe nicely how I look at the digital culture.
Speaking with the Monocle Weekly, a podcast produced by the London-based magazine of the same name, Wales talked about the challenges of making Wikipedia easier for a broader audience to use.
“The next billion people to come online are largely going to come online using a smartphone,” he said, which is a succinct way of describing a trend that is already becoming clear.
That is, mobile growth has indeed been exponential in the last few years, but we may as well accept that it will be the standard from here on in.
Just think about it.
Look at the kids around you, and see what they’re most likely to interact with. A child can figure out how to use a tablet and a phone with ease; a PC — particularly a desktop model — is not where they’re likely to learn, nor where they want to be.
That’s not to say that the elementary school kids of today will never use PCs; as Wales put it, their entry into the online world is generally going to be using a device they can a) hold in their hand and b) carry with them, wherever they want to go. (In other words, what they use later on might be something else entirely.)
For those of us in the digital racket, this has really significant implications. Mobile traffic used to be considered a bit of a novelty, but that sentiment is long gone now. Now, considerable resources go towards ensuring that mobile users get as good an experience on a phone as on a conventional web browser. (Even the term “conventional” may soon seem quaint.)
This is easier said than done, and the industry is still, I think, in the learning stages with issues including navigation, scaling, multimedia and so on. The goal is that each user gets high-quality content, no matter what they’re using.
Indeed, if most of the new users are using smartphones, it makes no sense to equate “mobile” with “scaled-down.”
The writing is certainly on the wall that massive change is already afoot. In July, IT research company Gartner, Inc. reported that shipments of PCs had declined for the fifth quarter in a row. A month later, Steve Ballmer stepped down as the boss at Microsoft, in a move that many in the industry saw as not-quite-voluntary, especially as Microsoft seems poised to get serious about adopting a more mobile-friendly business plan.
I don’t think PCs are going to be dinosaurs. To the contrary, I expect to see workstations become more powerful than ever, because that’s what we need them to do: work.
But the personal side of computing will be undoubtedly be more mobile, whether it’s with phones, tablets and the hybrid devices that we will no doubt see down the road. We will use them for work, in addition to suiting them to our personal tastes and whims, and there’s no reason that the online offer should continue to lag so far behind.
I wanted to note something else about what Jimmy Wales is focusing on these days, and that has to do with improving access to Wikipedia itself — not for the vast majority who just want to use it as a reference tool, but for those who want to get under the hood and contribute.
Wikipedia has known for a long time that it has a problem with its editing community: namely, the people writing, correcting, amending, editing and improving the pages tend to fall into a common demographic pool, largely consisting of tech-savvy guys of a similar age range.
In order to appeal to many different people, especially those who have no clue about the markup language (the way that pages are created and edited), Wikipedia has been testing what is calls its Visual Editor.
The idea is pretty democratic: an editing tool that is far easier to use, or at least to get started with. (Veteran editors are still welcome to use the much-more-precise markup tool.)
There have been problems — speed, or rather slowness, is a key one — but Wikipedia is trying to hammer them out, too. Click on the link above to learn more about getting involved.
Yes, Wikipedia’s content always raises suspicions because it famously lets anyone edit. However, its quality-control system has improved so well that I find some of its content not only reliable, but superior to what else is available online.
John Gushue is a producer with CBC News. Twitter: @johngushue.