Ten years after starting the world’s most popular crowd-sourced encyclopedia, Jimmy Wales remains pretty unfiltered. Here’s what he thinks on Google’s algorithm change, Apple’s iron grip on apps, and the Nokia-Microsoft alliance.
When Jimmy Wales speaks, people listen. That’s probably because he’s the guy behind Wikipedia, the go-to resource for quick crowd-sourced summaries on everything from X-Men to halitosis. Ten years later, it's available in over 270 languages, viewed by 400 million-plus people around the world, and edited 11.6 million times a month. And though Wales focuses his energies these days on Wikia, the ad-supported, slightly geekier version of Wikipedia with truly elaborate Wikis on say, Star Trek (ie. “Memory Alpha”) he still helps out where ever he can. Case in point: his sixth and latest annual personal appeal for Wikipedia funds, with banners carrying his mug (“Those outperformed banners without my picture about 2 to 1,” he says) that brought in $16 million in 59 days.
Of course, Wales is also notable because he’s pretty much willing to weigh in on anything tech, even if it seems outside his purview. Most recently, he argued the app market poses a bigger, more immediate threat to Internet freedom than net neutrality regulation.
Fortune caught up with him last week to talk about how the Google algorithm change is affecting Wikipedia and Wikia (it’s not), Apple’s (aapl) stranglehold of the apps market (unfortunate), and his outlook on the Nokia (nok) - Microsoft (msft) relationship (dubious). You’ll want to read what he has to say:<!-- more -->
Fortune: Some web sites affected by Google’s tweaked algorithm are saying the change is doing more harm than good. Where do you stand?
Jimmy Wales: I’m actually excited about it. I think it’s about time that we have a little bit [of] these really ridiculous sites getting knocked down some. Of course it’s too early to tell what is the real impact. There’s been a lot of noise about who’s been impacted and who hasn’t. I think it’ll be another few weeks before we really have a clear view on that.
Still, it seems like some of the most the egregious offenders, like Demand Media’s ehow.com, remain unaffected. Should Demand be included?
There’s basically two ways to get good, quality content. One is you pay professional journalists to write good quality content and that is the time-honored manner. It’s quite expensive, but it works. That’s one way. The other is to get people really passionate about a subject who really care about it, to write about it. And to do that, the way you get low quality content is you pay people very small amounts of money to write about stuff they don’t care about at all. And you reward them based on whether or not they’ve used all the right keywords. In that environment, if that’s what you’re trying to produce, you produce things of very little quality.
With Demand Media of course, we can all question what value they’re bringing. But I guess it is true that they do write original content, which for an algorithm to detect, is trickier.
I don’t think it’s optimal for society in any way that when you do a search, you just get content from people who don’t care. That’s not good for anybody. Of course, it’s an endless arms race. So there will be another round.
You just wrapped up another round of fundraising for Wikipedia. Do you ever think about changing the rules up and allowing for ads or linking out to relevant sites for revenues?
No. We never absolutely just say ‘never’, and we’ll do anything for Wikipedia to survive, but in our most private discussions, I will ‘leak’ to you that we never even talk about it. It’s not on the radar for us.
Are you concerned about people turning more to social networks for information than your sites?
Certainly not for Wikipedia. People do share Wikipedia links a lot. It’s all kinds of fine. But there definitely is a shift to a lot more social sharing of links and it just gets easier.
There’s something wonderful about going on Facebook and seeing that your friends share this funny story about a robotic dinosaur that has an attitude. (I just saw the first thing in my Facebook feed.) It’s great, but it’s not something I would have searched for. You still need search. There are still things you’re trying to figure out, and you’re going to search for it.
So you see them working hand-in-hand?
Yeah, I think it’s complimentary. The one thing I did read the other day was what Facebook would do with all the data they’re sharing in terms of building a search engine. I think it’s a very interesting question. People should keep an eye out for that because the nature of what people share socially is very different from what people search for in a search engine, so I’m not sure you can build a cute search engine out of a cute story about robotic dinosaurs.
You also just spoke out against app stores and how they pose a big threat to Internet freedom. Have Apple’s new in-app subscription rules changed your view on that?
It’s quite likely that Apple is going to commit the classic Apple mistake of trying to be too controlling and therefore the market gets away from them and people start to move towards Android.
My big concern is, will we have devices that are completely locked down, and the only software you’ll install on them is software approved by a single vendor? That’s an issue in a lot of ways. From a business perspective, one of benefits of the app model is providing a really exciting time again for young programmers. You get together a team of four smart young programmers and you can actually make a lot of money. It’s interesting and exciting.
But at the same time, it’s like making a deal with the devil. And I don’t mean to be calling Apple the devil. I’m a great admirer of Apple. But you’re locking yourself into a system where Big Brother is going to be more powerful than you. Which is a pretty big deal.
What I was contrasting that with is that a lot of the brouhaha with net neutrality is fairly theoretical. People are afraid of companies doing things someday that they aren’t doing now. But this is a huge market phenomenon now and it’s really quite important.
So Apple’s getting it wrong and Google is getting it right?
So far. To Apple’s credit, from a strategy point of view, as the first player in that market with a very dominant couple of years head start, they did what they could with that, and that’s great for them. At the same time, I think Apple needs to be very careful that they don’t get sidelined as more and more devices [arrive]. And again, it’s the classic old story of Microsoft and Apple, where Microsoft with a more open platform. But it is true. Microsoft was far more open than Apple was and won because of that.
Apple runs the risk that if they don’t embrace a bit more openness in their platform, people will actually say, I’ve got this iPad, and my kid can’t play this Flash game. So Apple’s in a fight with Flash? I don’t care. And yet this other device lets me run Flash. Simple as that.
Sounds like you think Apple is arrogant.
Well, I think Apple is arrogant, and I think they earned it. The iPad is an absolutely brilliant product. They brought it to market a full year, maybe more than a year, before anyone else had anything remotely competitive. That’s hard to do. This is an incredibly competitive market. To do that with the iPad is just really insane. They may deserve to be a little cocky about that.
At the same time, it’s the tortoise and the hare. Just because you’re the first out of the box, doesn’t mean you’ll win in the long run. They have to be very careful and very thoughtful about how they can be a part of any ecosystem.
And Google is the tortoise then?
It’s funny to think of them as a slow-plotting turtoise that will win. Google is pretty relentless, so that’s very interesting.
What else has sort of has you riled up these days?
The other thing I’m fascinated by is the whole Nokia-Microsoft tie-up. ... I’m not surprised their stock was down by 8% in one day. That sounded like a really bad idea. On the other hand, Robert Scoble, who I do respect very much, just made the point that I can’t really answer: Have any of you actually used a Windows Phone 7 mobile [device]? Because it’s really awesome and this is a really brilliant move.
But you don’t seem to think so.
I’m still very skeptical. I do respect that there’s an alternative view out there, and I think it’s going to be one of the more interesting things in the mobile space. But where will Nokia be five years from now? … This shake things up [“Burning Platform”] memo from the CEO was brilliant, with people saying “OK, we’re about to be left behind if we don’t do something.” That sounded really good. I would have suggested the Android ecosystem would have been a better place for them to make really brilliant hardware, which they do. But then what do they do? They joined up with Microsoft.
Not really what I thought you’d say guys, but hey, hope that works out for you.