Framework, Product Or Both?

Photo of Greg Harvey
Mon, 2009-08-31 12:38By greg

Ask any Scottish whisky maker, distilling is not an easy process. Only when the hot gases cool can you see the real results of your labours. And (in the case of whisky, at least) you often have to leave the resulting liquids to sit for a long time, observing them carefully and testing them regularly, to get a really perfect product at the end.

Online conversations seem to go a bit like that. First there's the fire of electronic communications. The flippant email, the loose tweet. Then there's the cooling process, usually various blog posts from different perspectives, trickling down the sides of the community vessel. Finally, when it's all collected in the bottom, you can look at the mixture as a whole and start to understand what really happened.

Then you can draw some conclusions and sit on them for a few years, try to massage them in the right direction, and hope you have some liquid gold at the end of the process.

We seem to be reaching the end of the cooling process with Claudio's (@modulist on Twitter) initial blog post about Drupal and its relationship with the design community. What has come out, I think, is quite interesting. We discussed it early this morning (his time - I don't do mornings) and here's what we found in the vessel - correct me if I'm wrong:

  • Drupal started out as a product (with a framework beneath the surface, but fundamentally it was a CMS)
  • As it grew, the framework element became more and more useful until it started to *become* the product
  • Now Drupal has an identity crisis - is it a framework or a product? Both or neither?

When Claudio sees a "fork in the road" I think I now agree. But the fork is really this:

To the left there is the road to a Zend-like developer framework.
To the right there is the road to a powerful, out-of-the-box CMS product.

There is also a road in the middle, hidden behind a big bush, that winds through both territories, but that one's more difficult to find, especially if the majority of the people in the car want to turn left anyway (which, in my humble opinion, it feels they do).

I don't have any answers. I just think that there is a valid point here for discussion and for the community to think about over the next week, while we're all together at DrupalCon in Paris.

The framework route will, for sure, alienate designers and see them abandon the project. There's no place for a designer in a framework. There aren't any ".Net designers" (or not that I'm aware of). Smallcore could be seen as a step in the framework direction.

The product route will require a re-focussing of development resource within the Drupal community, away from API features (a little, at least) and in to stuff that many developers are less interested in, like UI, user experience, feature enhancements (that aren't just API features), etc. But if fewer developers are interested then fewer are likely to volunteer, so who will do the work? And you can't "re-focus" volunteers to work on stuff they don't care about. (Don't forget the key word here - VOLUNTEERS.)

Either way, I think Drupal has enough critical mass now to survive and prosper on either route. But the ideal would be to find that middle road. Doing so will require compromise, understanding and a more balanced approach to managing the direction of Drupal going forwards, because right now we *are* too developer-centric.

I think that is a fair criticism. I'm a developer, so I'm happy as a pig in poo, but I see the point of others and it could well be fair to say that a good degree of future success relies on breaking that up, just a little, just enough to get some more diversity in to the community. There have been some great initiatives over the last year to work towards the middle ground, but I think the last week has proven that we're not there yet.

I'd just like to slide something else in here before I sign off. I've noted several people abandoning Drupal citing the presence of Acquia as one of the deciding factors. This I cannot truck with, and here's why:

Drupal needs to behave like a product to continue its sustained march to the top - this was Claudio's main point, though it seemed to get lost in the noise. Like them or not, I believe (or rather, hope) Acquia will prove to be instrumental in bringing a bit more product focus in to Drupal. It is a big enough voice, connected well enough to the corporate clients, with the resources to start initiatives and donate development that really builds on the Drupal product. And, most importantly, in a structured and managed way that would be difficult to achieve as a volunteer body like the Drupal Association. As long as they always act in the interests of the wider community, why not? I would venture as far as to say we need them.

I watch with interest. Acquia, I expect great things. Please don't disappoint me. =)