The Torvalds of Drupal pledges HTML5 mobile love

So many coders, only one Dries

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DrupalCon London One of the primary building blocks of yesterday's web is limbering up to become a mover and shaker in mobile – but it might just spend longer in training than you'd like.

Dries Buytaert, the Linus Torvalds of open-source content management systems (CMS), has told The Reg that websites built on Drupal 8 will default to being created in HTML5.

Drupal 8 is the next planned version of the CMS Buytaert pioneered at university, now a project that he leads and which he claims today runs 2 per cent of sites on the internet. That's up from 1 per cent when I last spoke to him in April last year in San Francisco, California.

Users of Drupal today include the US White House, MTV, Sony, Warner Music, the BBC and The Economist, while the core Drupal CMS Buytaert pioneered serves as a platform for 10,000 plug-in modules from individuals and companies that add functionality to sites.

Buytaert, speaking to The Reg at DrupalCon London this week, said the default setting for Drupal 8 would be to output pages running in HTML5 – the planned update to the ubiquitous mark-up spec from W3C standard gnomes.

HTML5 is being touted as something that'll bring the web as it should be to mobile devices, because it will display pages smoothly on screens of varying sizes and will also work offline, both factors making life easier for app coders and the phones' users.

Drupal currently outputs pages to XHTML and often sites need to be re-coded to work on mobile. Either that or you build an app-based version of your site for Apple's iPhone or iPad and pay an Apple tax via Apple's AppStore.

This being an open-source project, Drupal is not a Fascist state so there will be choices beyond just HTML5: Buytaert said there is also "a lot of emphasis" on web services in Drupal 8, so apps can continue to run natively.

Also, you will be able to carry on working with XML, meaning sites can be output to Adobe Systems' Flash, cast by Apple's Steve Jobs as Luddite at the dawn of the mobile web revolution. Jobs spent most of 2010 trashing Flash, unhinging it from reality in a war of words to justify his decision to keep the ubiquitous media player off his phones and tablets.

Where the Jobs road show has trumpeted HTML5, however, it has mostly been talking up the video element plus page presentation of elements like graphics and typography using CSS.

HTML5 is more than this, though, while CSS is a member of a family of related technologies.

For the Drupal 8 vision, HTML5 includes tags so that elements like forms can be rendered on different devices without needing to hard code them into their parent site. Any browser that works with HTML5 should be able to talk to a site built in HTML5. This potentially breaks Apple's iOS model of building native apps, which are subsets of a website and just run on a specific device – in Apple's case, the iPhone or iPad.

HTML5 also includes Web Storage to store string data in a key-value pair database and Web Sockets for server communications, helping you work offline or in areas of dodgy network coverage.

Buytaert agrees that HTML5 has been hyped, but: "It's going to be the next version of the web ... HTML5 is a great implementation regardless of whether he [Jobs] dislikes Flash," he told us at DrupalCon London.

Buytaert also points out that Drupal 8 isn't abandoning Flash developers. It will let you export a website's content as XML so it can then be hoovered up by Flash.

"We believe it's the right thing to do. It [HTML5 support in Drupal 8] is not because we want to take a position against Flash. We want Flash developers to use Drupal as their content store," he said.

What's remarkable in Buytaert's commitment to HTML5 is the timing; it has come very early in gestation of Drupal 8.

Drupal hackers huddled at a drizzly DrupalCon to brainstorm the architecture for Drupal 8. While the talk was of even greater ease-of-use in the core content management system – something Buytaert believes the community must continually improve – the decision to go HTML5 has already been taken.

"We've already added a bunch of HTML5 things to the development of Drupal 8," Buytaert said.

The decision is all the more remarkable when you consider there is no actual date for Drupal 8's delivery. Drupal 7 was only finished in January and Buytaert told me he's waiting for 7 to become mainstream before he thinks about giving a date on Drupal 8. Signs are promising: he reckons it took a year for Drupal 6 to hit 100,000 sites but Drupal 7 hit that in just six months. That said, it took three years to build Drupal 7...

"Meanwhile, we are just cranking away at Drupal 8," Buytaert said.

Part of the challenge is the nature of the Drupal project. Like Linux, the last word on everything in the Drupal project belongs to just one individual: in Linux it's Linus Torvalds, in Drupal it's Buytaert. The Belgian remains the project's leader 11 years after he started building Drupal while at university in Antwerp, originally in order to manage some message boards.

That means while Drupal 7 saw patches accepted from almost 1,000 people, it was Buytaert who had to personally review all those changes. He does rely on teams in feature areas – for example, there's an HTML5 group working on Drupal 8 – but at a certain point in the process it is Buytaert who reviews their work. Buytaert looks at the code to make sure it's properly architected, to assess the quality and security of the code, and to decide whether it's a feature he wants in Drupal. Plus, Buytaert will dive into areas where he thinks teams or committees need help or where problems are escalated.

Some people submit one patch, others hundreds. The result?

"I spend a lot of time reading code, not much writing code," Buytaert says. He's become an expert at saying "no". ®

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