August 31, 2006

Personal wikis: Three small, simple alternatives

Author: Scott Nesbitt

Wikis aren't just great tools for sharing information and collaborating on projects. They also make excellent personal information managers. With a personal wiki, all of your to-do lists, notes, and appointments are at your fingertips in form that's easy to use and maintain.

The problem with most wikis, such as MediaWiki (the engine that powers Wikipedia) is that they take a lot of effort to set up and maintain. You have to deal with not only the wiki software itself but also the Web server and database that underlie the wiki. All of that is overkill for anyone who wants a wiki for strictly personal use.

But there are several applications available to someone who wants to get a wiki working quickly as a desktop tool. They don't require much, if any, configuration.

DoxWiki

DoxWiki makes it easy for you to get a wiki up and running quickly. When installed on your computer, DoxWiki weighs in at just over 200KB.

The heart of DoxWiki is a a simple Web server that's written in Perl. To get going, all you have to do is start the Web server at the command line; it doesn't seem to like being launched from a desktop shortcut. Then, open the wiki's main page in your browser by typing http://localhost:8080 in the address bar.

Instead of saving content to a database, DoxWiki saves the individual files that make up the wiki on your hard drive. The files are small, so it would take quite a lot of them to put a dent in your drive's capacity.

Creating wiki pages is simple. On the main page (called the Wiki Root), you type a name for the new page in one of the fields, and then click the Go button. From there, you add content.

Wikis use a markup language based on common keyboard symbols that format text, links (both to other wiki pages and Web sites), and elements on a page. If you don't know wiki markup, DoxWiki doesn't leave you hanging. It comes with a lengthy guide to the markup and how to use it.

DoxWiki also has a couple of other useful features: a nifty export filter and a search engine.

You can save individual pages as HTML, which you can later post to the Web, print, or send via email. In fact, I wrote the first draft of this article in DoxWiki, exported it to HTML, and completed the final draft in a text editor.

DoxWiki's search engine is rudimentary, but it gets the job done, which is useful when your wiki grows to encompass a large number of pages.

One aspect of DoxWiki that I don't like is the default look of the pages. They're not ugly, but they're bland. While you can add a custom logo to your wiki pages (mine's a frog), I couldn't figure out how to modify the look and feel of the wiki pages.

Going small and simple

If you need a portable and easy-to-use wiki, then you can't get any simpler than Wiki on a Stick and TiddlyWiki. Both Wiki on a Stick and TiddlyWiki are designed to be used on your desktop or to be carried on a USB thumb drive. They're simply HTML files that use CSS and JavaScript to provide formatting and the ability to add pages to your wiki. Well, you're not exactly adding pages as you would in a traditional wiki. Instead, the new content is just appended to the HTML file, and hidden until you click the link to jump to the content.

According to its developer, Wiki on a Stick "can be used as a personal notepad, calendar, repository for software documentation, and many other things." The beauty of Wiki on a Stick is that it is simple. The interface is uncluttered, almost bland. It consists of a heading, a navigation menu, an area for text, and a set of icons. You can easily create and edit pages by clicking one of the icons. When a new version of Wiki on a Stick comes out, you can quickly import the contents of your current wiki to the new version.

Adding and editing content is a breeze. Wiki on a Stick supports a variant of the standard wiki markup -- for example, you enter a + instead of a * to create a bullet. Whenever you edit content, a list of the supported markup appears at the bottom of the page. If you've never used a wiki before, then it might take a bit of time to adapt. If not, then you shouldn't have any trouble learning the formatting codes.

You can edit a Wiki on a Stick with Firefox, Mozilla, and Internet Explorer. While you can browse a Wiki on a Stick with Opera, you won't be able to edit it. Using Konqueror is out of the question, unfortunately. You can also edit the CSS from within the wiki to change its look and feel. If you plan to put the wiki on the Web as a static page, you can configure it so that the edit icon is hidden.

TiddlyWiki

TiddlyWiki is flashier than Wiki on a Stick. It follows the same principles as that application, but does so with a little more pizazz. For example, when you click a link to jump to some wiki content, an in-your-face JavaScript transition brings that content to the top of the page. You can turn that animation off if it bugs you. TiddlyWiki also has a simple built-in search engine that does the job.

TiddlyWiki divides content into two types: Tiddlers and Journals. Tiddlers are general wiki entries -- ideas, notes, to-do lists, or whatever else you want them to be. Journals, on the other hand, are notes that are specific to a day. While I was experimenting with TiddlyWiki, I used Journals to track specific tasks that I needed to do on a particular day, and used one as a personal diary.

You can configure several options in TiddlyWiki. You can set it up to do automatic saves and to create backups. You can also enable regular expression and case-sensitive searches, as well as generate an RSS feed. The latter is useful if you plan to post your TiddlyWiki on the Web. Unlike Wiki on a Stick, though, you can't change the look and feel of TiddlyWiki from the interface. You either have to edit the TiddlyWiki code, or create some sort of custom theme. The TiddlyWiki Web site leads you through that process.

TiddlyWiki has spawned a number of variants. These include GTD TiddlyWiki (aimed at those who follow the Getting Things Done method of personal productivity) and QwikWeb (which is meant to be deployed on a Web site). So, if TiddlyWiki doesn't quite suit your needs, you might be able to find a variant that does.

Unlike Wiki on a Stick, you can view a TiddlyWiki with just about any desktop Web browser, and on the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. You can edit the content of a TiddlyWiki on a wider range of browser than that supported by Wiki on a Stick: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, and Camino among them. On top of that, you can extend TiddlyWiki with several plugins. See the TiddlyWiki Web site for more information.

Conclusion

Wikis are great tools for capturing and sharing personal information. For personal use, you don't need to worry about maintaining a Web server or database. You can start using these personal wikis almost immediately, without getting your hands dirty configuring and maintaining the supporting software.

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