Wikipedia is going extra-terrestrial. The once static and internet-bound wiki encyclopaedia is going mobile, with offline copies becoming available on disc and via download . It's part of the Wikipedia Foundation's exciting new emphasis on spreading what it calls 'free knowledge' to all corners of the planet.

DVDs. CDs. Blu-ray discs. Printed books. Specialised volumes. Downloads. Automatic updates. All these features are part of Wikipedia's future. A future which could threaten the very existence of respected encyclopaedias like Britannica and Encarta.

Created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is a multilingual free online encyclopaedia written collaboratively by volunteers. Most articles on the site can be edited and added to by anyone who has access to the internet. It's currently the 11th most visited website on the internet.

The initial idea behind the new plans is that people with no or limited access to the web should still be able to access Wikipedia's highlights. So the new trial version 0.5 CD contains 2,000 articles about core subjects such as the arts, literature, history, science and geography.

Wikipedia's ambitious plan

But this very limited 0.5 version is just the very first step in what is shaping up to be a very ambitious plan. A plan which could culminate in the entire article base being released on a Blu-ray disc, with highly specialised volumes being published as books.

Wikipedia used a nomination process to identify which of its 1.7 million English language articles were of most value to Wikipedia users. The top 2,000 (that's 0.1 per cent of the total number) of these have been included on the first offline version which is available on disc for a nominal fee of around £7. You can also download it for free via bittorrent or direct download.

Professor Martin Walker of the Wikipedia Foundation told tech.co.uk yesterday that the organisation is currently writing a computer bot that will help volunteers select good, clean articles for the second beta trial. Version 0.7 - tentatively slated for a late 2008, early 2009 release - will include as many as 20,000 articles, with a 100,000 strong article base touted for the final version 1.0 after that.

While it would be very easy for the Foundation to simply copy the Wikipedia archive onto a DVD collection (it would take 12 DVDs to fit it all on) it's not quite as simple as that. Each article has to pass strict tests of accuracy and bias, and each one must be free of any vandalism or obscenities. That's the main drawback to the wiki aspect of things; it's fairly simple for any old cheeky monkey to vandalise articles with lies, propaganda and inappropriate use of strong language.

Printed books

Walker ruled out any possibility that the Wikipedia encyclopaedia would be published as a set of alphabetical book volumes. He said publishing a 200 plus volume set of books would not be practical, stating it would be more likely that the Foundation will publish highly specialised subject volumes on their own.

"It would not be possible to print the whole article database as a set of paper encyclopaedias. Instead we loosely plan to put together selective articles on specialised topics. So we could have one on algebra, and one on Association Football for instance," he said.

The editors will most likely choose the most hotly desired subjects - Star Trek was given as an example - with the Star Trek entry and sub-entries being printed as a separate book volume.

And the great thing about all this information being available is that the Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation. Any money that is charged will be purely to pay for materials and production costs. Editors are all volunteers, with funding currently coming from regular donation campaigns.

This very liberal attitude to distributing 'free knowledge' could very well threaten the existence of current digital encyclopaedias such as Encarta and Britannica . These other products cost up to £50 to purchase on a DVD-ROM, something which will be hard to justify once there are cheaper and more thorough alternatives coming out the wiki camp.