By Victoria Shannon International Herald Tribune
09/28/06 9:50 AM PT
Wikia plans to hire as many as 20 engineers in Poland next year. The two-year-old company builds community Web sites and software now used by more than 1,500 communities in 48 languages, ranging from a psychology site to fan sites like those focusing on "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and the Muppets.
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Poland and Silicon Valley: Quick, what do these two places have in common?
As of last week, they both have Jimmy Wales, the man who came up with the idea for Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by Internet surfers.
Wales, a man who in previous lives made a small fortune as a commodities trader and adhered to Ayn Rand's egocentric philosophy of Objectivism by running a racy Internet portal (all according to his own Wikipedia entry), stopped in Paris this week on his way back from opening an office in Poland for his other company, Wikia. (Wiki is Hawaiian for "fast.")
Unlike Wikipedia, which is chartered as a nonprofit foundation, Wikia is designed to make money. In June, Wales hired Gil Penchina, the former head of eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) in Europe, to run the operation on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Wales said he settled on Poland in part because software engineers there are simultaneously highly skilled and affordable, a combination that he said is hard to find, even elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
"It's good economics there, but it isn't so much about cheap salaries," said Wales, who was on his way to a technology conference in Bangalore. "It's about reasonable salaries and high quality. You can find cheaper programmers in other parts of the world, but the quality's not there."
Wikia plans to hire as many as 20 engineers in Poland next year, he said. The two-year-old company builds community Web sites and software now used by more than 1,500 communities in 48 languages, ranging from a psychology site to fan sites like those focusing on "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and the Muppets.
Despite having spent almost nothing on advertising the business, Wales said, Wikia has been growing at a rate of 15 percent a month. The company's original financing came from the likes of Mitch Kapor, the head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape.
The Poles are also special when it comes to the nonprofit Wikipedia too, Wales said. After English, German and French, the Polish-language Wikipedia site is its biggest; Japanese is fifth. If the current growth trends continue, Wales added, the Polish site would surpass the French version next year.
Wales is still working to get past the earlier Wikipedia controversy over who can edit the encyclopedia entries and how much oversight they need, since its open, free-software model of collaboration lets in all comers, good and bad.
The Wikipedia site in German will be the first to test a new procedure for protecting the content from drive-by pranksters, he said. It is setting up a process to allow entries that are viewed by the Internet at large to be vetted only by a "trusted" editor -- in other words, one who has been a Wikipedia contributor for more than four days.
In China, Wikipedia sites have been blocked to the general public for a year, not by pranksters but presumably by government censors. Wales said he planned to travel to China in March to "see who I can meet with and try to do something about it."
Unlike Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) , which has agreed to government censorship in order to do business at all in China, Wales said, "For us, it's not possible that we're going to compromise. It would be fundamentally against everything that we believe in."
Elsewhere in the developing world, Wales said he believes that the online device for the masses would be the mobile phone, not the personal computer .
However, he thinks another device could reach even more people: paper. At Wikipedia, "we don't have any means of distributing off-line," he said.
Wales said he would welcome an effort to print Wikipedia on paper for Third World schools that cannot afford electricity, let alone Internet connections. As far as he was concerned, he said, that venture could even aim to be a for-profit one.