The End Of The Web CMS Brass Era?

Growing up in Essex with my father and most of my friends families working in some capacity for the Ford Motor Company, I tend to gravitate towards the automotive industry whenever I hear people saying we need to look to history in order to see the future. I’m always skeptical about taking this too literally as circumstances change and many new factors are involved — hence why I’m more afraid of an autonomous car controlled by code I’m not allowed to see than a driver whom I can; however sitting here on the eve of the Free/Libre Open Source project Drupal’s first anniversary of its latest product release, Drupal 8, I find it hard not to draw parallels between these two industries as I ponder what the future might have to hold.

Brass Era Cars

According to Wikipedia, 1886 is regarded as the birth year of the modern car, and the ‘Brass Era’ is an American term for the early period of automotive manufacturing, named for the prominent brass fittings used during this time for such things as lights and radiators. It is generally considered to encompass 1896 through 1915, a time when these vehicles were often referred to as horseless carriages.

Within the 20 years that make up this era, the various experimental designs and alternative power systems would be marginalised. Although the modern touring car had been invented earlier, it was not until Panhard et Levassor’s Système Panhard, first built in 1891, was widely licensed and adopted that recognisable and standardised automobiles were created. This system specified front-engined, rear-wheel drive internal combustion engined cars with a sliding gear transmission, and was to become the standard layout for automobiles for most of the next century.

Initially the high-wheel motor buggy (resembling the horse buggy of before 1900) was in its heyday, with over 75 makers, but were only gradually abandoned, in favour of the more advanced runabouts and tonneaus along with other more expensive closed bodies — and killed off by the Ford Model T, first produced by Ford in 1908.

Brass Era Web

The first web browser was invented in 1990 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, with the first content management system (‘CMS’) appearing around 1992. Drupal was started in 2000 at a time when there were many CMSs, and although the list of CMSs available is still considerable, there’s no doubt that there’s a few who dominate the market, with WordPress taking the lion’s share; Joomla and Drupal in a battle for 2nd and 3rd spot. If however you only look at larger installations, for example usage in government and education, you’ll find Drupal has much larger market share.

Because you can package up functionality in install profiles and distributions much like the Linux operating system, it enables the roll-out of hundreds or even thousands of similar sites, for example Nasdaq’s Investor Relations Website Platform, OpenSocial’s collaboration platform and the Australian Government’s aGov distro. A kind of mass-market production line, one might conjecture.

The Parallels

So we have new modes of transport (the car, the web), which quickly have models of manufacture designed for them (Système Panhard, CMSs), of which many different types are made (high-wheeled motor buggies, CMSs), but were gradually abandoned in favour of more advanced runabouts and tonneaus (WordPress, Joomla, Drupal) along with other more expensive closed bodies (SharePoint, SiteCore, Adobe Experience Manager).

The Model T was produced in 1908, 22 years after the birth of the car; Drupal 8 development began in 2011, 21 years after the birth of the web browser. Ford’s Model T was not only successful because it provided inexpensive transportation on a massive scale, but also because the car signified innovation for the rising middle class and became a powerful symbol of America’s age of modernisation. I’m writing this on a Drupal 8 site which I had the freedom to download, install, and use for free with no license fees, has so far involved me writing no code, and costs me only $10pcm to host on DigitalOcean.

From Innovation To Standardisation

During the Brass Era, development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to hundreds of small manufacturers competing to gain the world’s attention, with key developments including electronic ignition systems, independent suspension, and four-wheeled brakes.

In Drupal 8 we’ve seen Symfony adopted and many modules included into core such as WYSIWYG and Views, making Drupal 8 a great ignition for any web system; Composer increasingly used as Drupal’s independent suspension to keep all those dependencies nicely balanced; and as the web calls for speeding up not slowing down, Drupal 8 has the most advanced dynamic cache system of any CMS, even capable of caching logged in users.

Nearing The End

We’re now 26 years into the Web — with the Brass Era ending 29 years into the Car does this mean we’re nearing the end of the Web CMS Brass Era? What exactly constitutes ‘Brass’ in terms of Web CMSs?

I draw parallels between Brass and the multitude of modules/plugins and themes for these CMSs. For example, WordPress has many, but they have a much different ecosystem than Drupal’s modular architecture which means you can start small and build as your needs arise. WordPress has many paid-for plugins which if you try to get them working together you might encounter issues. Drupal 8’s modular system and object-oriented architecture is designed so you can build 100% the system you need, not 90% made up of what someone else thinks you need which has to be nice and shiny in order to grab your attention because they have so many competitors for their shiny lanterns they have for sale.

With WordPress you quickly get into a situation where you have to start writing code to do anything — that’s untested, untried code which you’ll be tasked with supporting and maintaining. And who is writing this code which operates your core business? With Drupal you’ve tried and tested modules to use for functionality, along with a 40+ member Drupal Security Team keeping a watchful eye over any security issues which may arise. There’s also strict Drupal Coding Standards, and an ethos in the community of working together on similar functionality where possible as opposed to having many plugins doing the same or similar functionality.

I hear people saying “use the right tool for the job”, but I don’t use different cars for different day-to-day journeys, and most the people I hear it from are techies, not business people who are more focused on the bottom line and just want stuff to be done. Sure, for the edge-cases it’s fine, however many businesses share common business functionality so the more that’s in the open and shared, the lower the cost of making use of the web will be. Take for example hairdressers, or car dealerships, or life coaches. I see a future filled with many industry-specific Drupal distributions servicing vertical markets. At the moment it’s too easy for digital agencies to sell individual solutions and not share, after all, their model is selling people’s time, but it won’t be long before enterprising entrepreneurs develop more of these distributions focusing on specific verticals, especially now composer support is taking shape more so it’s easier to build and maintain these distributions.

For too long many have essentially forked Drupal by downloading it and customising it to the requirements of just the one project at hand, whereas the beauty of Drupal is where you grow the capabilities of Drupal so it does what you want to do without writing code by using modules from core and the world of contrib land. There’s a great session from the recent DrupalSouth on YouTube explaining how a decision to “contribute more back” by releasing a module a week, either upgrading existing modules to Drupal 8 or tidying up code from client projects where there was functionality created which more than that one specific requirement needed so could be useful to others turned into a complete new approach to how they develop projects, and their goal for 2017 is to write no custom code at all. This is how it should’ve been from the start, but there are a number of factors as to why people haven’t been approaching Drupal development like this, however going by the number of modules released over the last few weeks for Drupal 8 I believe people are beginning to understand that this entire project was built by sharing, not keeping things secret. I personally believe there needs to be more sharing, and I’d love to speak to any organisation willing to open up their website development project to the world so everyone can have the opportunity to advise on how best to develop it using the modules and methods available, and let’s start sharing more so we can grow Drupal’s capability more.

So I’m calling it — I believe we’ll see Drupal 8 take a dominant lead in the CMS market space over the next three years and go on to be the platform of choice when developing anything for the web. When there’s commodity functionality out there available for free, the justification to start paying out for development and/or license fees does not make much sense for the majority of users. Sure, there will always be other systems around — there’s custom cars, Formula 1, rally, and so on, but many just want to get from A to B for the minimum cost and minimum fuss, and let’s remember the majority of the web is still not using any CMS.

With Drupal 8’s ability to work with any device, it’s not just publishing for the web but embedding itself in the core of how the internet works, so no matter what you want to do, whether you’re the YMCA connecting to workout machines and wearables like FitBit bands or simply thanking your supporters, Drupal 8 can do it!

Question is — does this mean another 100 years before we see autonomous CMS appear? I do hope it’s not that long before I can just think about what I want to build & it appears magically in front of me!

If you want to find out more about what Drupal could be doing for you, feel free to contact me, and if you’re reading this on 19th November 2016, Drupal 8’s 1st birthday, there’s a fabulous line-up of speakers and sessions for the free Drupal 8 Day Virtual Conference.

Main image of Ford Model A by DougW via Wikimedia Commons

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