John Gruber has posted Markdown,
a text-to-HTML conversion tool for web writers. It is yet another in a long line of plaintext formatting tools. Let’s see, we have Textile, Structured Text and about a billion slightly different Wiki markup languages. TMTOWTDI, but it’s starting to get ridiculous.
The problem that these formatting languages solve is that it’s a pain in the ass for most people to format HTML inside <textarea>s. Weblogs and Wikis are the two places I see these markups being used most. They use ASCII to format the text, using a * to make a <li> tag or !! to make a <h2>. Since the competing formats are hashing it out ad-hoc there’s no standardization and everyone it pointing out how simple theirs is compared to everyone else’s.
I see these languages as a half-way solution to the real problem. They attempt to make the plain text look like the rendered HTML, while defining their own arbitrary formatting rules. They are designed so that what you see is pretty close to what you get.
Most simple HTML isn’t much more complex than these rules. Is it easier to remember <strong>this is bold</strong> or this is bold? One is certainly easier to type, but another formatting language may have this is bold. Because there’s no standardization you need to remember where you are when you use these markups, whereas with HTML the same rules apply (mostly) everywhere.
Since simple HTML is simple enough, and global enough, why not just use HTML? Well for one thing, people seem to have trouble using HTML. Take a look at Fark’s comments sometime and you’ll find comments that use the UBB link tag [url]http://www.example.com/[/url] or you’ll see photoshop contest entries where people just post the URL to the image because they don’t remember how to make an <img> tag.
These people (probably) aren’t dumb, they just have better things to do with their time than remember arbitrary formatting rules, even HTML. Put them on a Wiki and they’ll be far too intimidated to contribute, even though they may be an expert on the topic. Giving them yet another way to format text won’t help, they don’t want to learn markup languages. A good Wiki should respect that and work with them to come up with a better solution.
I’ve searched and I’ve searched and I have yet to find a Wiki that has a WYSIWYG editor. If you take a step back, all these formatting languages are attempting to make <textarea>s as close to WYSIWYG as possible, so why not do away with the <textarea> all together?
I predict that a Wiki that incorporates Epoz, an open source cross browser WYSIWYG editor, will have phenomenal success. It would empower real people to contribute with the smallest barrier to entry. LiveJournal is already sporting a rich text editor and I suspect that it’s doing quite well, although I can’t find any statistics on it. I would love to see Blogger, TypePad and Moveable Type follow suit. Isn’t that what Wikis and weblogs are all about, lowering the barrier to entry?
Maybe there’s already a Wiki out there that uses a WYSIWYG editor and it’s not phenomenally successful and I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look like it. Are we really helping users by confusing them with competing markup languages that they don’t want to learn anyways?
John Gruber has posted Markdown,