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Software engineers at Wetpaint and other consumer-oriented wiki companies believe they can overcome the usability problems. “Wiki technology has gotten to the point now where it’s simple enough that the first wave of non-geeks are using it,” says David Weekly, CEO of PBWiki, a provider of free wikis based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Whether or not they actually create and edit their own pages is irrelevant, from my perspective. They just have to know they can,” he adds.

Yet plenty of doubters remain. Mark Hurst, a user-interface designer who leads the New York City Web design consultancy Good Experience, thinks wikis will have limited appeal outside technology-industry professionals and other heavy Internet users, mainly because average PC users aren’t clamoring for collaborative editing tools – and have no time to learn how to use them.

“Google won out over the dozen search engines vying for the top spot just a few years ago because it was the easiest to use,” says Hurst. “If you look at wikis, Google is a pretty good benchmark. Is Wetpaint going to create something that becomes indispensable to the average user’s life, and so unbelievably transformative that they have to tell their friends about it, and so easy that any user can learn it on their first try in two seconds? The day my Aunt Edna tells me she’s helping to edit a wiki is the day I’ll say we’re ready for wikis.”

But others believe that wikis serve a real need – but they need to evolve more. “Yes, there will be wikis around a few years from now, but they’re not going to look like your father’s wiki,” says Joe Kraus, CEO of Jotspot, which provides wiki-building tools to businesses and small organizations. Kraus says Jotspot’s own engineers are working to integrate other common types of desktop applications into wikis – or, rather, to make those other applications more wiki-like, meaning, for one thing, that the information in them will be editable by a group. He says Jotspot will launch a new set of services later this summer, but declines to offer more details.

“For wikis to truly become mainstream, you’ve got to stretch them – because otherwise they just look like Wordstar from 1995,” says Kraus. “They’re very useful, but still trapped in this nerd clothing.”

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