Saturday, 20 February 2010

Review: Wiki on a Stick (re-post)

Original article: 06/04/2008  appeared in Full circle Magazine #12
It's time to confess; I'm a PC junkie. I travel around the country a lot between  clients, friends, family. I usually take one of the three laptops, or I get stuck using various nasty client machines. There's a regular chunk of material I regularly use, not to mention a stack of bookmarked url's. I also maintain several web-sites for myself and others that I'm migrating away from Dreamweaver templates...

I decided a while ago that what I need is a cross between a content management system, electronic post-it notes and web-page editor. Something portable, compact, cross-platform, free to run client-side, publish to web and structure how I like. Or put another way, a Joomla-Tomboy-Quanta-Evolution hybrid. Hmm...

What I haven't mentioned in that list are wikis. You've probably used them on the web - even if only Wikipedia. With a wiki you get instant page editing in most web browsers; simplified formatting using wiki syntax; linking between articles, embedding of documents, code, links, capped with simple publishing as a web page - great. Except most wikis are 'server-side' programs that need to be hosted and administered on a server.

However, there's another category of software called personal wikis. There are several around, notables being Tiddlywiki (and derivatives like Qwikiweb), Doxwiki and my current favourite, Wiki on a Stick (commonly shortened to WoaS). Not just a catchy name, I carry mine around on a USB memory stick. You can see the default layout below. The software is available as a free download at  http://sourceforge.net/project/showfiles.php?group_id=155218.

The personal wikis are glued together by the magic of Javascript. I say magic, because what you get is one HTML file which contains all your data wrapped up in the Javascript code that makes it all work; editing, formatting, searching, encryption, namespaces, printing and more besides. Your content is structured and hidden until the Javascript reveals it for presentation through the browser. It makes for a superbly portable mini-application and I use several instances for different purposes.
Things I like about WoaS
  • You don't need to understand, write or edit Javascript: just unpack it, erase the default pages (containing the core user instructions) and begin.
  • It works on its own terms: it genuinely is a standalone tool with inbuilt controls for permissions, settings, cascading stylesheets and so on.
  • You can edit the look and feel as much as you want: you can re-work the HTML and stylesheets without messing up the Javascript, which is how I made-over one instance of WoaS to use as my company web page (above). Not all the personal wikis will render embedded formatting, much less layouts this complex.
  • You can use as much embedded HTML code as you want:  the Edit window lets you mix and match HTML and wiki syntax – so I do (below).
  • WoaS automatically handles text searches (it's a strength of the personal wikis), so no need to manually index your keywords. The results are presented clearly, too.
  • It's got edit-locking and true AES encryption to make it tamper-proof and secure. Consider the encryption in case you lose your memory stick.
But, with most things in life, WoaS is a compromise...

Limitations to live with in WoaS
  • It's still effectively a pre-production beta release - I'm on version 0.9.6B. It's maintained by one developer with a small but active community around it (the WoaS forums are good at http://woas.iragan.com/).
  • You have to have Javascript enabled in your browser, even to display the page.
  • You can only edit your local copy, not one sitting on any remote server - so remember which instance is your 'master', keep it backed up  and republish to the web after any edits.
  • It's one single HTML file, NOT a content management system and definitely NOT a database. The Javascript does a lot and there are more features planned. I've got five thousand lines of code and content in one instance. Page editing in the browser is fine, but I have to be very alert (and patient) if I tinker with the wiki structure in GEdit. Did I mention keeping it backed up? Tiddlywiki will automatically keep file backups for you, gratis.
Things I won't do in WoaS
  • Tinker with the core Javascript: I'm not good with code and I don't need to break Daniele's masterpiece.
  • Embed images: I still think embedding image data in a text file that I'm editing is asking for trouble. I even removed the default WoaS button images - also so I can use my own. Its all html so url(images/home.gif) for your own backgrounds and buttons works fine.
  • Embed large, complex documents: remember, anything you embed will bloat the size of the text file. You won't want to embed your Full Circle PDF's.
  • Use the wiki as the home page on my web-site - its a big file and can take a while to download a cached copy into the browser. I keep a flat, fast HTML banner page and redirect to WoaS for my content pages. Hey, a two-page web site isn't bad going.
Conclusion
You can download any of the the personal wikis, create a blank instance and start using it without changing a thing. In terms of size and editing capabilities, they are about even. They all employ dialects of the wiki syntax for links and format, but in reality you only need know maybe four commands to create the basics. They all have wiki-help pages and healthy community forums. I prefer WoaS over the razzle-dazzle of Tiddlywiki. Although Tiddlywiki can do more and has themes available, its' code and structure is more complex. WoaS is deliberately tighter and simpler, yet it has some other features like html-export and encryption that the others lack. I'm finding it incredibly useful.  RC