An exemplar of the “assembled web”

I spotted an article in Forbes by Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, in today’s scrolling twitter feed. I’ve dabbled a bit in Drupal, creating a few sites, but aside from looking at the PHP to debug a few things and trying a few patches, never really got technically below the level of installing and configuring modules. Even some of the more technical things in Drupal GUI configuration, such as creating content types and views to retrieve and present that content, are still done with boxes, radio buttons, checkboxes and lists. If you think about it, you are dealing with something that’s close to the MVC paradigm without having to write code. Buytaert says an individual without coding experience can “…use an open source CMS to assemble a site by simply snapping modules together…” That’s the essence of the assembled web. We know, in a fairly intuitive manner, how to create a personalized experience on our smartphones and tablets by selecting and configuring apps from an app store. This is really the same philosophy, just rendered on a server to allow others to access your content. There’s an app (or module or plug-in, depending on the CMS and its terminology) for that, to allow anyone to create on the assembled web. It really takes the Web back to its roots as a person-to-person sharing service. Berners-Lee envisioned it as a tool for sharing information between researchers, where individuals were creators and consumers.

The catch in all this is that it’s quite promising and almost there, but it’s not quite as seamless for the users as we’d like. WordPress is a bit further along this path than Drupal, I think, especially with the ability of current versions to maintain and update the “apps” (plugins, in WordPress-speak, and even some core updates). Drupal 7 doesn’t auto update, and the upcoming Drupal 8 won’t either, at least initially, insofar as I can tell. Some think that this is a bad idea anyway, in that it could lead to a massive compromise of servers. In my humble opinion, I think that the risk is actually greater of not updating sites, having seen the result of many compromised WordPress instances. It’s a double-edged sword – the easier it is to use a tool and create content, the lower the bar for the technical competency to do that, and the greater need for software that updates itself, as less-experienced (and read less paranoid as well) site owners simply don’t appreciate the need to keep things current. Drupal has a steeper learning curve (it doesn’t do much out of the box, unlike WordPress), thus the folks that run Drupal sites tend by necessity to be more technically literate and are thus more attuned to the need to patch/update (this is not to disparage the many, many very competent WordPress admins doing great things with the software, it just that it’s so easy to use and get started, that it’s an attractive target vector for compromise of less-well-maintained sites; this site runs on WordPress which I religiously patch and update!).

Buytaert is right that the the assembled web is the wave of the future, and he’s also right that it’s not a threat to the livelihood of (some) developers. However, the days of hand-crafting HTML are over, and there is a slice of work that has been squeezed out. Developers and integrators that understand the add-on technology and economy will thrive, just as those that have created apps have helped smartphone and tablet ecosystems to thrive and driven the sales of those devices. The assembled web makes it easier for everyone to share and publish creatively. It’s not quite point & click, but is asymptotically approaching that goal. I think that the tail is still a bit long, however, and getting to Buytaert’s vision of “…a marketer could build a site for a new product launch without relying on the engineering team. An entrepreneur could launch a company site without hiring a webmaster…” will take a while longer yet. That marketer or entrepreneur can get started, but the devil is always in the detail, and it’s not quite “fire and forget” on setting up a site…but it’s getting closer.

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