When the first wiki saw the light of the world in 1995, it simplified HTML syntax in a revolutionary way, and its inventor Ward Cunningham chose its name after the Hawaiian word for “fast.” When Wikipedia launched in 2001, its rapid success was thanks to the easy collaboration using a wiki. Back then, the simplicity of wiki markup made it possible to start writing Wikipedia with Netscape 4.7 when WYSIWYG editing was technically impossible. A relatively simple PHP script converted the Wikitext to HTML. Since then, Wikitext has always provided both the edit interface and the storage format of MediaWiki, the software underlying Wikipedia.
About 12 years later, Wikipedia contains 25 million encyclopedia articles written in Wikitext, but the world around it has changed a bit. Wikitext makes it very difficult to implement visual editing, which is now supported in browsers for HTML documents, and expected by web users from many other sites they are familiar with. It has also become a speed issue: With a lot of new features, the conversion from Wikitext to HTML can be very slow. For large Wikipedia pages, it can take up to 40 seconds to render a new version after the edit has been saved.
The Wikimedia Foundation’s Parsoid project is working on these issues by complementing existing Wikitext with an equivalent HTML5 version of the content. In the short term, this HTML representation lets us use HTML technology for visual editing. In the longer term, using HTML as the storage format can eliminate conversion overhead when rendering pages, and can also enable more efficient updates after an edit that only affect part of the page. This might all sound pretty straightforward. So why has this not been done before?
Lossless conversion between Wikitext and HTML is really difficult
For the Wikitext and HTML5 representations to be considered equivalent, it should be possible to convert between Wikitext and HTML5 representations without introducing any semantic differences. It turns out that the ad-hoc structure of Wikitext makes such a lossless conversion to HTML and back extremely difficult.
- Context-sensitive parsing: The only complete specification of Wikitext’s syntax and semantics is the MediaWiki PHP-based runtime implementation itself, which is still heavily based on regular expression driven text transformation. The multi-pass structure of this transformation combined with complex heuristics for constructs like italic and bold formatting make it impossible to use standard parser techniques based on context-free grammars to parse Wikitext.
- Text-based templating: MediaWiki’s PHP runtime supports an elaborate text-based preprocessor and template system. This works very similar to a macro processor in C or C++, and creates very similar issues. As an example, there is no guarantee that the expansion of a template will parse to a self-contained DOM structure. In fact, there are many templates that only produce a table start tag (
<table>), a table row (
<tr>...</tr>) or a table end tag (
</table>). They can even only produce the first half of an HTML tag or Wikitext element (e.g.
...</tabl), which is practically impossible to represent in HTML. Despite all this, content generated by an expanded template (or multiple templates) needs to be clearly identified in the HTML DOM.