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With the recent developments in offline Wikis it has become apparent that the their use has grown far beyond an alternative collaboration tool. Countless wikis are used as a universal instrument of sharing and distributing aknowledge on almost any topic. But so far, participation requires constant access to the internet. This is bound to change.
Earlier this year the Wikimedia Foundation adopted the ZIM file format by openZIM as its standard for displaying web content offline. ZIM is being developed since February and already has come a long way. It is working nicely and running smoothly even on embedded devices such as the Ben NanoNote as well as the Neo Freerunner.
This flexibility and portability the project owes to its internal structure. Instead of a single, complex process, OpenZIM is designed to run in between existing applications. The ZimReader acts as a web-server allowing the user to browse the wiki's content with any browser available. The ZimReader as well as the ZimWriter, used to generate the ZIM files, are written in C++ and thus platform independent. ZIMlib can also be used as a drop-in, to make your application instantly ZIM-aware. The specifications of the ZIM format can be found on the project's wiki, alternative ZIM implementations - in your favourite programming language or framework - are welcome.
The heart of the project however is the ZIM format. It is designed to be an efficient and universal way of storing large wikis in a single file. It can be used to compress virtually any data from a given database (PostgreSQL, MySQL, SQlite or Oracle) scheme or from a collection of files. "With ZIM we are trying to introduce a standard for offline wiki applications", the project team explains. Applications on platforms such as the iPhone, webOS or Symbian are also invited to join and with the Wikimedia Foundation already preparing automatic ZIM generators for the Wikipedia, it is only a matter of time.
The holy grail of ZIM is offline editing. "This is a must", Manuel Schneider, who is leading the openZIM effort, said and surprisingly added "The road is clear and the mechanisms in place, all that is needed is implementation". The project aims to have this ready next year. The process how to merge edits back is currently being discussed between different projects and the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco.
Of course, there have been several attempts in the past to create offline versions of the wikipedia and other wikis. However, what was missing was a cleanly structured and thought-through approach to solving the issues at hand. Open standards and collaboration, spanning across multiple platforms and areas of expertise, are vital in such an endeavor. OpenZIM is just that. A project were both, Wiki writers as well as application developers, meet and work together towards this standard.
"Bringing Wiki content to offline devices in a standardized and exchangeable way, using open standards and free software", is a bold and big goal indeed, but the openZIM team is going to tackle it one step at a time. As mentioned earlier the ZIM implementation is already functional and has been used in both commercial and free products. The current construction sites are the article categories and full text indexing as well as increasing performance while minimizing the memory footprint.
If you want to get involved in the openZIM project or have any questions or comments check their wiki and contact them via their mailing list.