How are open source CMSes like Microsoft enterprise software?

Aside from the fact that both topics would put the average blog reader to sleep before the end of the first…

OK, now that they’re asleep, let’s talk. Throughout most of my career, open source software and Microsoft’s (or, really, any software behemoth’s) enterprise “solutions” have seemed diametrically opposed. But the more I think about the situation, I begin to find some startling similarities, at least in their implementation (and reasons for said implementation), if not in their actual structure and licensing.

If you’re the one person (besides me) who’s spent any significant amount of time reading this blog, you probably know two things: 1) I don’t like Microsoft, and 2) I don’t like Drupal. So these are the objects of my scorn in today’s post as well, although the problems I’m describing can be generalized, I think, to the broader sectors of the software industry that they represent.

When I worked in the corporate world, I resented Microsoft’s dominance across the board from operating systems to desktop software to enterprise systems. It just seemed that most of their tools weren’t really that good, and eventually I began to realize that the reason they were successful was that Microsoft’s customers were not the end users, but rather the IT managers who made purchasing decisions. These decisions were largely based on their own knowledge and experience with Microsoft’s software (to the detriment of other, possibly superior options), but also (I believe cynically) to preserve their own jobs and those of their staffs. Microsoft’s systems require(d?) constant maintenance and support. Not only did this mean bigger IT staffs on the corporate payroll, but it meant lots of highly paid “consulting” firms whose sole job was to promote and then support the sales and implementation of Microsoft products.

In the indie developer world, where I now reside, the culture and software platforms are different, but perhaps not as different as they seem. Apple’s computers dominate the desktops in small studios, and the tabletops in coffeehouses where freelancers can frequently be spotted hunched over their MacBooks hard at work while sipping lattes and meeting (usually a little too loudly) with clients. And open source software dominates at the server level.

But just like Microsoft’s platforms, I think most open source software just isn’t really very good. And the problem, once again, is the customer (or… well… whatever you call the person who makes the decisions when selecting a free product). It seems that the end user experience is rarely given much priority when most open source software is being designed and developed. Part of the problem is a lack of direct contact between the development teams and those end users (or, to be honest, even between the geographically scattered members of the development teams themselves). Devs don’t really know what end users want or need. They only know what they want or need, along with what’s been submitted to their bug trackers.

It’s not that these devs are bad people, or bad at what they do. There’s just a disconnect between coder and user, and as a result the goal of building good software isn’t met.

So, why do independent developers still use tools that are not really the best for their clients? Again, cynically, I wonder sometimes if job security isn’t a factor. It’s a lot easier to build something that works, but that requires indefinite, ongoing attention and support, than to build something that is flawless, that you can hand off to your client and never touch again. It’s easier… and it provides built-in job security.

Now, I’m not perfect, and I’m not above all of this. There is no such thing as flawless software, and I have ongoing support contracts with some of my bigger clients. But I’m proud to say that’s mostly because I’m constantly building new sites for them, or building functional enhancements onto the sites they already have, rather than doing endless bug fixes and technical support because the tools I’ve sold them are too confusing or simply don’t work right. Sure, the bug fixes and tech support do happen. But the tools — primarily WordPress and cms34, my own CMS — are built much more with the end user in mind, and have managed to avoid the pitfalls that mean a guaranteed job for me at the expense of a mediocre user experience for my clients.

That’s harder, and riskier. But it’s better. I’m delivering a higher quality product to the clients, and I’m keeping my own work interesting and moving forward.

Test 1-2, test 1-2

There is no substantive content in this post, really. At least I suspect as I write it that there won’t be. I’m merely testing the capabilities of the latest version of the WordPress app for iOS, released today, which I disparaged in passing (based on my experience with a much earlier version) during a podcast while pondering the merits of Tumblr.

Already I see many improvements since the last time I bothered to try using this app. There’s actual formatting in the text entry box, for one. And you can even insert pictures taken with your phone!

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Yes. I just took a picture of what’s right in front of me, right now, which happens to be the view from my living room couch. And yes, we still have Christmas Valentine’s Day lights up. You got a problem with that?

Clearly, Tumblr has lit a fire under WordPress’s backside, and the iOS app is one way the Automattic bucket brigade is attempting to extinguish it. Time to give this app another chance!

Three years

Judging by the old posts dredged up by my new WordPress plugin, Room 34 presents On This Day*, it was three years ago today that President Obama was inaugurated.

It’s been a strange three years. The president has probably failed to live up to the (unreasonable) expectations a lot of his supporters put in him, and he’s been too willing to contort himself in vain efforts at compromise, but I think he’s still accomplished a lot, and he’s certainly better than his predecessor (although that’s damning with faint praise).

I’m supporting the president’s re-election, if less enthusiastically than in 2008. And if for no other reason than what last night’s (yet another) Republican debate proved**… they’re a sorry lot indeed.

* Yes, that’s kind of a douchey name for the plugin. I wanted to just call it “On This Day,” but there’s already another plugin (which does basically the same thing, but appears to have been abandoned by its developer) in the repository with that name. This was the best I could come up with, because I think “On This Day” is the best possible name for a plugin that does what it does.

** I’m basing my opinion of last night’s debate, like all of the others, on what I’ve gleaned from Twitter. I would never subject myself directly to watching one of these debates, because a) I already know there is no possible way I’d ever vote for any of these candidates, except possibly under extreme duress, and b) I value my sanity.

Room 34 presents On This Day: a WordPress plugin

For a while now, I’ve had a sidebar widget on my site that displayed posts published on the same date in previous years. It’s a fun way to look back on your own blogging history and to revisit topics from the past.

I didn’t really have it set up as a proper widget though; it was just code stuck directly into my sidebar template. Today I decided to rebuild it as a proper plugin, which you can now download and use yourself!

It’s really simple to use. Just extract the zip file and place the contents in your wp-content/plugins directory. Then go to the WordPress dashboard. Activate the plugin (under Plugins), then edit your widgets (under Appearance) and drag the “On This Day” widget where you want it to appear.

You can customize the title and the “no posts” message (which gets displayed on days when there are no historical posts).

Room 34 presents On This Day is now available for download in the WordPress Plugin Directory.

On the ugly history of early open source CMSes (or why, surprisingly, I did not enjoy listening to Merlin Mann and John Gruber together in a podcast)

It was a perfect idea, or so I thought. Two of my favorite personalities from 5by5 podcasts were going to do a show together: John Gruber (of The Talk Show and Daring Fireball) was going to appear on Merlin Mann’s Back to Work podcast!

Unfortunately, when Merlin Mann’s fire met John Gruber’s ice, the result, like Derek Smalls, was lukewarm water.

Or maybe it was just because they spent the first several minutes of the podcast — all I managed to get through in one sitting (though to be sure, it’s all that’s relevant for this post) — talking about the early days of open source content management systems (CMSes). It maybe wasn’t really their fault. I reflexively dry heave when I hear words like PostNuke or Plone. They’re names I haven’t thought about in years, and haven’t thought about positively… well… ever. I dabbled with both of them in the early early days of CMSes, and quickly ran away.

But then Gruber and Mann (sounds like a comedy duo from the ’60s) got into something that really stings: they started professing love for Drupal (Merlin) and Movable Type (John). I cannot tell you how strongly I dislike both Drupal and Movable Type.

Gruber loves him some Movable Type

It’s been a point of pride for me since becoming a loyal Daring Fireball reader that I do not like Movable Type. The fact that Gruber uses Movable Type for Daring Fireball and is a vocal supporter of the platform, and the fact that I loathe Movable Type, is something I use to prove that I have not just become a devoted Gruber acolyte. I still think independently; I just happen to agree with him on almost everything he writes about.

One of Gruber’s biggest reasons for liking Movable Type, apparently, is the fact that it doesn’t serve content from the database; it publishes the entire site out to static HTML files. This is great for server performance under heavy loads, and has probably allowed him to continue to run Daring Fireball with a much lower-powered server than he’d need if he were using a database-intensive CMS. But in my own experience it also makes the process of using Movable Type a chore. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never actually used it directly myself; my work with it has been limited to setting up templates/themes/whatever-they-call-them-in-MT for other people. MT’s tools for working with stylesheets and templates are cumbersome, MT’s proprietary scripting language is tedious for “non-natives” like me, and having to republish the entire site to see changes to the templates is a real pain in the ass.

On the other hand, Gruber loves to rip on my personal favorite open source CMS (though surely he doesn’t know, nor would he care, that it’s my favorite), WordPress. And it is precisely because WordPress doesn’t publish static pages the way MT does that he hates it so much. He commonly refers to sites that crash under the weight of his referral traffic as being “fireballed” (clever), and sites running a stock installation of WordPress are notorious for this. But there are several caching plugins available for WordPress that can greatly boost its ability to handle peak traffic, in a much less intrusive way than MT’s static HTML publishing process. My plugin of choice these days is Quick Cache. The plugin’s tagline says it all: “Speed Without Compromise.” (I’m not-so-secretly hoping that Gruber links to this post on Daring Fireball, but then again, I’m not sure I want to risk being proven wrong.)

Merlin and Drupal, sittin’ in a tree

And then there’s Merlin, and Drupal. Oh, Merlin. Again my experience with Drupal is fairly limited. I tried using it to run this site for a brief period (which you can probably find if you dig in the archives… I believe it was around early 2006). I very quickly gave up. Drupal’s admin interface was clunky and unintuitive, but it was the fact that my site was almost instantly drowning in comment spam that killed the deal for me. In the time since then the only work I’ve done with Drupal has been focused on helping people move their sites off of it, but the fact that so many people want to do that says enough for me.

I find two major issues with a lot of open source CMSes (like Joomla and MODx, to name two others I’ve tried in the past) that are perfectly exemplified by Drupal and Movable Type.

First, unless you really know what you’re doing and put a lot of effort into it, your Drupal site is going to look like a Drupal site. (Yes, it’s true that as I am writing this I’m using a more-or-less stock WordPress template, so my site looks like WordPress, but that’s not the point; it’s easy to build a completely custom WordPress theme from scratch with little more than basic HTML/CSS skills.)

Second, and I touched on this with Movable Type, many of these systems have their own custom scripting languages or other idiosyncrasies to be learned, such that learning to use these systems is not substantially easier than just learning to code HTML/CSS.

Of course, I know how to code HTML and CSS. That’s my job. I have “visual” mode disabled in the editor in WordPress. A CMS exists not just to shield you from writing code, but to make it easy to manage, organize, and re-organize large amounts of site content, while maintaining a consistent look and feel. But a good CMS goes beyond that. A good CMS puts the power to manage the website in the hands of people who don’t know, and don’t want to know, how to write code.

A little background

As I listened to Merlin Mann and John Gruber wistfully recall the glory days of crappy CMSes, I wondered why they had devoted so much time and attention to learning and working with those systems, while at the same time I had rejected them out of hand. (I also wondered why they were at roughly the same place in their careers as I was at the time, and now they’re “famous,” but that’s beside the point… or maybe not… read on.) Then it hit me: I didn’t like those CMSes because I had already built a few of my own and I liked them better.

Now, it’s true that I liked my CMSes better partly because, well, I had built them. And I think Merlin was spot-on in the podcast when he said that most systems worked great if you thought just like the developer. (Specifically, he said that Basecamp works great if you think like Jason Fried.) That’s a great point, and one I should not overlook. But there’s another aspect to this. Most of these open source CMSes are developed by online communities of… well… geeks. Sure, they take feature requests from users (I assume), but ultimately the main people giving the developers feedback on how the systems should work are other developers.

I’ve built a number of CMSes over my career. They’ve all been built to meet specific client/user needs, and always in direct consultation with those clients/users. Has that made them perfect, or made me impervious to casting my CMSes in my own image? Of course not. But it’s made it harder to hide away in my geek cave and crank out systems that only other geeks can use.

The first CMS I built was in the heady days of early 2000, just before the dot-com bust. I was working for a certain big box retailer’s dot-com subsidiary. (This was back in the days when certain big box retailers believed they could spin off dot-com subsidiaries as independent companies that issued their own stock and everyone got rich yay!!!)

The company had invested 7 figures in some colossal enterprise CMS that was going to take several months and thousands of hours of consultant time to customize to our needs. In the meantime, our staff of writers (yes, we had writers producing informative weekly articles for each “department” of the online store) would deliver their content to me and to the one other front-end developer who was good at HTML (I know, right?), and we were to manually convert them into HTML and put them into the static pages of the site. (As front-end developers, we were strictly forbidden any database access. Because, you know, we were dangerous. We might put HTML in it.)

After a few weeks, I decided this was a ridiculous arrangement, so over the weekend I scraped together a quick-and-dirty, database-free CMS that would allow the writers to enter their content directly. The system would merge their content with prebuilt page templates, and save the output as static HTML pages on the server.

And so a career as a CMS developer was born.

At my next several jobs, I built more CMSes, honing the process each time (and always starting from scratch, since my previous work was the IP of my former employers). And eventually, when I went out on my own in 2008 (not to mention my first failed attempt at full-time freelancing, in 2003, which is going to be the subject of a future post), it was natural that I’d create my own CMS, and this time since I own the IP, I can keep building on it and expanding its capabilities.

Does my CMS have the polish and ease-of-use of WordPress? Probably not, although I’ve had more than one client (more than two, even!) tell me they prefer my CMS over WordPress. But the stock version of WordPress has a fairly limited scope of capabilities (you’ve got your pages and you’ve got your posts and, hey, why would you need anything else?), and my CMS is more modular, with a number of other capabilities (built in event calendar with registration, ecommerce, custom forms, etc.) that can be turned on or off to suit the needs of the client. WordPress is highly extensible with plugins, of course, but I find that, in short, if a client needs a custom solution, they need a custom solution. My CMS is a shortcut to a custom solution.

So that’s why!

Along this mental journey through the littered landscape of dead (or dying) content management systems, I learned a few things. I learned why I never fell in love with those early CMSes. And I think I probably also learned why I’m not “famous” in the field of tech bloggers/podcasters. I’ve been too busy reinventing my own wheel for much of the past decade to have the time to devote to self-promotion (and I don’t mean that as a slight against Gruber and Mann) necessary to achieve that level of recognition.