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Drupal looks beyond open source zealots

Trade-offs, cocoons, and broken APIs

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Every few years, Drupal violates one of the industry's most sacred rules: don't break your APIs.

The next version of the popular open source content management system – Drupal 7 – will do just that. And more. It will offer a redesigned user interface that targets – gasp! – non-technical users. It will hide features that devs know and love.

Also in the works: Drupal Gardens, for hosting sites built with Drupal 7. It's analygous to Wordpress.com, and it's set to enter public beta "very shortly".

Such changes come at a critical juncture for Drupal. They're intended to help increase uptake among content creators – those outside Drupal's core audience of open sourcers.

After 10 years, Drupal runs about one per cent of all sites on the net, according to estimates, a stat that gave delegates at this April's DrupalCon in San Francisco, California a sense of satisfaction. Drupal has built a niche powering micro sites for big corporations, such as Britney.com and Justintimberlake.com from Sony, and it scored a high profile win with Whitehouse.gov.

But Drupal creator Dries Buytaert says it must do better. Drupal still isn't as popular as WordPress (8.5 per cent of websites) or Joomla (just over one per cent). And while Drupal has strong name recognition at developer events, it's WordPress that has successfully crossed into the consciousness of mainstream bloggers and content creators – people without a background in PHP programming.

"We are doing really well. We are growing rapidly and have a lot of big wins like Whitehouse.gov... but at the same time, I like to paint the picture of where we could go," Buytaert told The Reg during a recent interview.

"Drupal 7 will take a very big step forward in terms of usability. We made it the number-one priority...We made a big transformation where Drupal used to be a tool for developers by developers for developers. We are starting to switch to make Drupal...much more optimized for the end users versus the person building the site."

Drupal 7 has benefited from weekly end-user usability sessions. For the first time, developers have watched real people from behind two-way mirrors in usability labs as they interacted with the system. A design expert - Mark Boulton, who's helped re-design the BBC's site - has also been hired to work on the Drupal 7 UX and Drupal.org.

The results: there will be one-click access to features like creating posts and moderating content, while developer features will need a few more clicks to be uncovered, Buytaert said.

Big - the new small

There's one problem with going mass market. Buytaert recognizes that for real growth – and we presume money too, given that Buytaert is chief technology officer and co-founder at Drupal software and services company Acquia – Drupal needs wider uptake among paying enterprise customers like Sony. Therefore, Drupal 7 will introduce a database abstraction layer, out-of-the box, so that big sites can use Drupal with multiple databases. This will mean a performance hit for smaller sites – a calculated gamble for growth.

"I think we made the right trade-offs. If we want Drupal to grow it has to grow in the enterprise," Buytaert said. "While there's a small performance hit for the smaller users, it's worth that penalty because small sites can grow big over time – you don't want people to migrate off the platform over time."

Drupal Gardens also gets enterprise attention. One of Gardens' first enterprise features will be Site Duplication – recently added to the private beta – for a site owner to clone an existing site's design, functionality, information architecture, and content onto a new site.

The desire to straddle both small and big users suggests there's a dynamic tension inside the Drupal camp. Buytaert admits those participating and adding features in the past haven't necessarily been representative of the typical Drupal user.

People manning Drupal's issue queues and driving feature requests and bug reports actually come from bigger sites because their devs can take the time to contribute. Drupal users running smaller sites typically don't have time to participate so download and go away.

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