To most people —especially those to whom computing is a means to accomplish some other task rather than an end in itself —systems software is boring. To paraphrase the old Clintonian phrase, “it’s the apps, stupid”. What matters to most computer users is more about what IT does than how it gets done.
To that end, Linux —despite recent controversies regarding Linus Torvalds’ comments on the new GNU Public Licence -has become boring to all but the IT people, marketers and free software advocates. This is, of course, as it should be; people shouldn’t have to think much about the underlying OS, and simply concentrate on the applications software that’s closer to their specific needs.
It’s here that open source is once again showing some of its great benefits, as well as the accompanying warts. The emergence of boring yet useful of open source system software is leading to the emergence of some extremely cool applications.
Today I’ll focus on one application that I’ve come to know, love and occasionally roll my eyes in disbelief at the Drupal Content Management System, in my eyes the best common use to date of the LAMP platform.
(First a moment on “LAMP”. While it has commonly been thought of as the combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP, subtle switches -such as BSD instead of Linux, Perl or Python instead of PHP, and PostgreSQL instead of MySQL -are common. It’s interesting to see that hearty fan of open source, SCO, take a leap at the bandwagon with its “SCAMP” promotion.)
Drupal is a wonderful program for creating Web sites that encourage interaction through polls, blogs, forums, events and other content. It supports dozens of languages under its “i18n” (cute developer contraction of “internationalization”) facility. It’s stable, scalable to small and large systems, its graphics are highly themeable, and it’s all freely downloadable and licenced under the GPL. While it’s but one of a swarm of similar programs (just look at the size of the listings under cmsmatrix.org) it is emerging from the pack thanks to a huge user community and its sheer flexibility. It appears to have won over most people I’ve read who have done comparisons.
Examples of useful, good looking Drupal-powered sites are starting to appear amongst the thousands of existing deployments. The best example up here are for Industry Canada’s Communications Research Centre, Rentalmonster.ca and the Project Opus music download site. I use it for a number of sites, including of course The Canadian Association for Open Source. That site, with the help of webmaster Gerry Singleton, integrated Drupal with Oakville-based Internet Secure’s payment system in order to be able to take CLUE memberships online.
Sites I’ve personally worked on have offered yellow-pages-style business listings, complete with maps and the ability for viewers to add their own reviews. Others have allowed political riding associations to enable better communications between party and members, and even personal Web sites can be made to help pay their own costs through built-in links to Google and other ad systems. A good set of security tools makes Drupal more spam-bot resistant than most CMSes. Full-blown e-commerce and CRM are available, and these modules are as free as the core system. Given its capabilities, it’s only a matter of time before Drupal and systems like it find their way deeper into corporate environments, serving a variety of Web-based tasks.
If anything, the only downsides are the small-p politics that play out whendevelopers run the IT show. End-user documentation is far sparser than that available for developers, installation tools are only now being developed (the system is now at release 4.7), and communications with other projects is little if any.
The insular nature of these communities, large as they may be, can lead to problems, as happened between Drupal and developers of another application package. A commercial system called Fantastico is used by hosting companies to offer no-frills, easy-to-install (but unsupported) Drupal sites to anyone for less than $10 per month. Each system helped the other; Fantastico brought Drupal to the realm of the non-geeks and it benefitted from the growing popularity of Drupal.
Yet the developers of the two groups didn’t talk to each other, let alone acknowledge the value of the relationship. As a result, nobody took responsibility for the few problems that did arise with the occasionally botched install or use of non-current versions of Drupal. A small incident that could have been resolved in a polite e-mail turned into a nasty, fearmongering post on the main Drupal Web site which deemed all use of Fantastico a “recipe for disaster”. The Fantastico developers, stunned by the accusation, offered to drop Drupal support if the Drupal community hated it so much (a guaranteed lose-lose situation).
Of course, these folks said such things within their own community chat areas rather than actually talking to each other. The bare immaturity of such exchanges, and the lack of actual dialogue, offers a jarring counterpoint to what should be a completely positive environment. And that’s not even considering the irony that they’re producing are communications tools.
The best cure for this is for Drupal to get the kind of commercial support infrastructure that has taken similar rough edges off of Linux and other open source projects, by providing financial incentives for those who cater to end-user needs and do all of that other stuff that programmers hate. It can’t come too soon, for the sake of both Drupal and those yet to benefit from it. Let’s see the excitement come from what the software itself can do, rather than from the emotions of the developers.