Wikimedia Doubles Down On Mobile With Wikipedia Zero, Carrier Appeals

After years of employing an ad-hoc community-driven approach to mobile, one of the world’s biggest Web sites is going mobile in a much more organized way. Wikimedia Foundation is currently pitching deals involving a new mobile version of its ubiquitous Wikipedia site that it hopes wireless carriers will offer to users for free as it starts to take a more strategic approach to the mobile era.

The group is hoping that it can convince wireless carriers to include links to Wikipedia in their WAP portals and basic browser bookmarks, use Wikipedia logos and other branding material in their own marketing efforts, or promote a new site called Wikipedia Zero in hopes of increasing access to information and helping carriers show their customers the appeal of wireless data. Wikimedia Foundation has yet to sign any carriers, but Amit Kapoor, senior manager of partnerships for the group and one of its first mobile-focused employees, is concentrating on carriers in India and throughout Asia with the initial push.

Wikipedia Zero is basically a stripped-down version of the mobile Web site that doesn’t include images. That lowers the bandwidth requirements needed to display the page, and Kapoor hopes that wireless carriers will find it easier to let their customers access that information without having to pay a data charge if the strain on the network is reduced. The foundation also is also trying to convince carriers that allowing free access to a limited site could encourage people with more disposable income to sign up for basic data plans.

It’s not that the non-profit group behind Wikipedia has been ignoring the mobile revolution: it has an iPhone app built by a volunteer, maintains both a mobile Web site and an old-fashioned WAP site, and is putting the finishing touches on an Android app that will likely debut within a few weeks. But it’s difficult to rely on volunteers to keep up with an industry that shifts as often as mobile, and so the Wikimedia Foundation has decided to make mobile a top priority, Kapoor said.

According to Comscore (NSDQ: SCOR) estimates provided by Wikimedia, the sites are the fifth-largest Web destination in the world, with over 422 million unique visitors in August. Wikimedia doesn’t track unique visitors itself (it doesn’t use cookies) but Kapoor said the foundation recorded about 15 billion page views in August, and around 10 percent of that traffic came from mobile devices. Mobile traffic to Wikipedia in general has doubled compared to last year.

Considering both the growth of mobile as a force in developed countries and the realization that many people in developing countries are skipping the PC-based Internet and going straight to mobile devices, Wikimedia would like to improve its mobile offerings and is trying to enlist wireless carriers as allies.

Carriers have a bit of a negative reputation in the mobile world for holding back software they don’t like, but in the developing world they play an essential role in the development of mobile computing because of the high number of customers that opt for pre-paid month-to-month plans as opposed to the post-paid contract plans common in the U.S., said Kul Wadhwa, who is head of mobile for the Wikimedia Foundation but sports a business card that reads “All-Purpose Ninja.” That means carriers compete fiercely for new customers and are curious about offering pro-bono services to bolster their image among potential customers.

Three proposals are being floated to carriers around the world, but especially in what some call the “Global South,” or the developing countries of South America, Africa, and Asia. Many of these countries are still operating second-generation wireless networks that can’t quite handle the modern mobile Web site or apps for iOS or Android.

As part of this renewed focus on mobile, the group also wants to get a better handle on what people expect out of Wikipedia on a mobile device. For example, Wikipedia offers a fast way to settle barroom arguments for those who just want to read the site on their phone, but few people would probably want to edit a Wikipedia article of moderate length on a smartphone. They might be more inclined to edit articles on tablets, which now account for about 20 percent of Wikipedia’s mobile usage.

“We have some catching up to do,” Wadhwa said.