Wales saw the handwriting on the wall in the late 1990s. The self-professed information freak, who spent countless hours poring over the World Book Encyclopedia as a child growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, embarked on a project called Nupedia - a peer-reviewed academic encyclopedia that he now describes as a "complete failure." Although Wales was able to attract "a group of very smart, academic people who were really­ passionate about the idea, it was too much work for volunteers to deal with," he says.

Rather than toss in the towel, Wales decided to wrap himself around a slightly different approach. Around that time, he was fascinated by wikis - websites that allow users to add and edit content at will (wiki is a Hawaiian term that means "quick" or "fast"). Building on the idea of collaborative effort used for Nupedia, why not create a collaborative encyclopedia and tap into the brainpower of the masses? He reasoned that he could harness the same core group that contributed to Nupedia and make content available at no charge - while allowing users to copy and reproduce the encyclopedia at will.

Thus, Wikipedia was born on January 15, 2001. Since then, it has ridden the crest of the Internet wave and emerged as the leading tool for gleaning basic knowledge on almost any given subject. "People are attracted to Wikipedia because it is incredibly easy to use and useful," observes Barry Parr, a media analyst with Jupiter Research. "It's frequently updated, the material can be reproduced freely, and, because of the collaborative way it's written, you get a sense that there are multiple perspectives on any given issue."