Google's Knol was opened to the public last week, to much fanfare. When Knol was announced in December last year, it was immediately compared to Wikipedia, and the comparisons keep coming now that it has launched. However, as I wrote at the time, the comparison seemed to be wide of the mark in many important ways. Now that Knol has launched and we can see how it will actually work, I think the accuracy of the comparison is still not borne out.
The three key differences I noted at the time were the lack of collaboration in writing knols, the plurality of knols (more than one on the same subject) and that knols will not necessarily be free content, differences which go to the core of what makes Wikipedia what it is.
As it turns out, Knol does provide a couple of options for collaboration, allowing authors to moderate contributions from the public, or allow public contributions to go live immediately, wiki-style. The other mode is closed collaboration, but it does allow for multiple authors at the invitation of the original author.
As the sample knol hinted, Knol does provide for knols to be licensed under the CC-BY 3.0 licence by default, and allows authors to choose the CC-BY-NC 3.0 licence, or to reserve all rights to the content. However, these are the only licences available; in particular, no copyleft licences are available.
Of course, the thing to remember is that Knol is an author-oriented service, so even if an author selects open collaboration and the CC-BY licence, it appears that they can change their minds at any time, and, for example, close collaboration on a previously open knol (I might need to do some closer reading of the terms of service, but it would also appear possible to revert the Knol-published version to all rights reserved model, too).
The author-oriented approach is apparent in most of the features of Knol. On a knol's page you don't see links to similar knols, or knols on related topics (as you would on a Wikipedia article) you see links to knols written by the same author. Knols aren't arranged with any kind of information structure like Wikipedia categories, or even tags; the URLs are hierarchical, but there knols are gathered under the author's name.
No, Knol is not a competitor to Wikipedia (or at least, it's competing for a different market segment). It's more a companion to another Google property, Blogger. It's a publishing platform, but not for diary-style, in-the-moment transient posts; it's for posts that are meant to be a little more timeless, one-off affairs. Google say so at their Blogger Buzz blog:
"Blogs are great for quickly and easily getting your latest writing out to your readers, while knols are better for when you want to write an authoritative article on a single topic. The tone is more formal, and, while it's easy to update the content and keep it fresh, knols aren't designed for continuously posting new content or threading. Know how to fix a leaky toilet, but don't want to write a blog about fixing up your house? In that case, Knol is for you."
Some of the content on Knol might start off looking like Wikipedia articles, but over time I'll bet that the average "tone" of knols will find a middle ground between blogs and Wikipedia's "encyclopaedic" tone as people come to use Knol as a companion to blogging.