The Decline of Drupal, or How to Fix Drupal 8

Prologue

Almost 4 years ago I wrote a controversial post entitled "17 Reasons WordPress is a Better CMS than Drupal" that caused me to be persona non grata among some of my prior Drupal friends.

But while some of the issues I mentioned have been addressed by the Drupal community most of the issues remain in Drupal 7, and WordPress has continued to gain strength as a CMS.

Unlike almost 4 years ago, I’m now seeing many people replacing Drupal solutions with WordPress and the end users becoming happier. My team is even bidding on replacing a website so we can build a member’s-only private site to go with it after the Drupal developers have not been able to deliver on the private site for over 2 years.

The Impetus

What triggered me to write this post was I was composing a long reply to a comment on the other post and it became clear it would be better as a new post.

In the comment the commenter asserted:

With Drupal 8 coming up, I am sure the difference in number of users between Drupal and WordPress will come down.

However, I think that the commenter will find that the exact opposite happens. Why do I think this? I started college shortly before the IBM PC was released so I’ve seen enough computer industry history firsthand to know a bit about the patterns that repeat related to software platforms.

Will Drupal 8 grow Drupal’s User Base?

I highly doubt it, and I think there is strong evidence in the history of software platforms that would support my view. Those patterns I mentioned above indicate to me that the strategy of changing Drupal’s architecture in Drupal 8 will be a failing strategy.

Let me explain.

Fans Like Things As They Are

As with all software products and platforms that gain a notable level of success, Drupal 7 and earlier appealed to people who valued what Drupal had to offer. Some of those things include ease of end-user configuration and other things include hierarchical software architecture and the hook-based extensions mechanisms. Or at least those are what originally appealed to me in Drupal before I discovered all the downsides I explained in the prior post.

Now Drupal 8 promises to be a lot more "modern frameworks and platforms," adopting "modern PHP concepts and standards, object-oriented programming, and the Symfony framework." Now that sounds awesome, and on the surface should cause almost any Drupal fan to cheer.

But those stated aspects require a lot more programmer skill to work with yet one of the things that appealed to a lot of Drupal users-cum-developers is that they did not have to understand object-oriented programming, nor modern frameworks and techniques. To quote Jennifer Lea Lampton:

Back in the day, Drupal used to be hackable. And by "hackable" I mean that any semi-technical yahoo (that’s me, btw) who needed a website could get it up and running, and then poke around in the code to see how it all worked. he code was fairly uncomplicated, though often somewhat messy, and that was fine. At the end of the day, it did what you needed.

Given the fact far fewer people have a high-level of programming skill many of those who do NOT see themselves as professional programmers do not want to improve their coding ability, they would rather just focus on their chosen career where Drupal is only a tool to help them.

So Drupal 8 will be will be alienating all those users and they will feel abandoned. Or as Ms. Lampton says:

Today, the majority of the people in our Drupal Community aren’t CS engineers. They are self-taught Drupal experts, people less technical than myself, and people who can get by using this awesome software we’ve developed to help make their lives easier. What is the transition to Drupal 8 going to be like to them? Well, I asked some non-core developers, and I didn’t like what I heard.

A lot of professional Drupal developers already have exit strategies.

And my guess is that most of those alienated users and new users who would have otherwise chosen old Drupal will move to WordPress.

But Pros Want to be Pros

And on the other end of the spectrum are those who DO see themselves as professional programmers and those people (almost) always want to increase their coding skills. They will start asking themselves why they are working on a platform (Drupal) that still has lots of "impurities" when the could just more over to a "real" framework such as Symfony or even Rails or Node.js, and not have to deal with all the legacy issues of Drupal?

Or as Ms. Lampton continues (emphasis on WordPress mine):

They may even have a day job building or maintaining Drupal 6 and/or Drupal 7 sites, but they go home at night and study Ruby, Node.js, Angular.js, even some are looking into WordPress. They want to be "out" before they have to learn Drupal 8. These are smart, capable people, who I’m sure - if they wanted to - would be able to pick up Drupal 8. So, why are they leaving? Because Drupal 8 has become different enough that learning it feels like learning something new. If they are going to invest in learning something new, why not Ruby, or Node.js, or something else?

What Visual Basic’s History Can Teach Us

What makes me think the above scenario is likely? Because I saw it happen with Visual Basic and C#. Visual Basic pre .NET was easy to use and became arguably the world’s most widely used programming language for a time. But it was a ugly language with many inconsistencies and was very limited in what it could do compared to C++ so it was always looked down on by "real" programmers ignoring how Visual Basic empowered so many people who never would or could develop using C++.

So Microsoft envisioned a "better" way; a .NET platform on which both Visual Basic and a new language called C# would live making Visual Basic a "proper" programming language, almost on par with C+.

Fast forward to today and what happened was that those who valued Visual Basic’s simplicity continued to use the old Visual Basic (for a while), abandoned it for other tools that were easier, or just quit developing and focused on other parts of their career.

Those who wanted to become better professional programmers asked themselves "why stay with VB?" so most everyone just moved up and over to C#. This migration effectively killed off what 10 years ago was once the most popular programming language in was the world.

And I believe a pattern similar to the Visual Basic decline will occur with Drupal starting at version 8.

When Upgrades are Challenging People Evaluate Options

And then there are those who will stick with their current version of Drupal until they can no longer maintain the solution and still get the evolving solutions they need for web and mobile.

At which point these people will be forced with a choice; migrate to the newer Drupal, or migrate to a different platform? And given how little interest the Drupal core team places in 1.) "Being backward compatible" and 2.) "Creating an interface that is usable for end-users" the choice will often not be "Move to newer Drupal."

True Believers will be True Believers

Of course there will still be people who love Drupal 8. And unlike proprietary software like from Microsoft, Drupal 8+ will continue to exist as long as a group exists who are passionate enough to maintain it. But I am almost certain Drupal’s market share will drop significantly and lose most of it to WordPress (which BTW won’t make that much different to WordPress’ marketshare, by comparison.)

Don’t Mess With My Status Quo!

And this being the open-source world, Drupal has already been forked and the fork is called Backdrop from the same Ms. Lampton quoted above as well as Nate Haug. Assuming Ms. Lampton and Mr. Haug and team executes at least reasonably well then some of the more fervent believers in "Drupal Classic" will move over to Backdrop, and Drupal 8 will loose more marketshare from yet another source.

But Backdrop will almost assuredly never be more than a footnote because it won’t have the marketing muscle in IT shops that Acquia has, and IT shops have been the primary drivers of Drupal adoption from best I can tell looking in from the other side. And Backdrop being a fork won’t have the 10+ years of supporting organization that Drupal now has. Plus, Backdrop has an unknown brand at this time and building up that brand will take time.

Old Doesn’t Inspire, It Just Fades Away

Given that Backdrop is basically a stake in the ground to avoid evolving Backdrop is highly unlikely to become "the hot new thing" but will instead be like FoxPro that for years after Microsoft acquired it was "a user base Microsoft could not grow and Microsoft could not kill"; that’s a direct quote from a former marketing manager at Microsoft.

The Shrinking Girth: Traveling Up the Pyramid

So Drupal 8 will be pushed by Acquia into IT shops, but it will be used by an increasingly narrow user base until the user base becomes so small that Acquia can no longer survive.

This long tail may take a really long time, but I am certain it is inevitable, unless of course Drupal/Acquia/Dries change strategy.

What SHOULD Acquia/Drupal Do Instead?

So here’s where I’ll divert from my criticism of Drupal and advocacy of WordPress; I’ll actually recommend what I think Drupal/Acquia/Dries should do and how they could potentially grow their business even if they do not catch WordPress in marketshare.

Announce the Drupal 8 Will Be "Drupal 7 Enhanced"

Dries Buytaert should do an about-face and announce that Drupal 8 will NOT be based on a new architecture but will instead simply be an enhanced Drupal 7, much like the about-face Tim Berners-Lee famously did when he announced XHTML was no longer the future of the web.

Adopt the Backdrop Team for Drupal 8 and Beyond

Dries should then work the Backdrop team and any of the Drupal 8 team who want to continue the status quo albeit with evolutionary improvements, much like how Merb broke off from and was later merged back into Ruby on Rails.

Further, adopt a no-breakage policy for future Drupal releases and work to ensure backward compatibility so that people are not forced into painful upgrades if they do not want to invest a significant amount into redevelopment. Learn from WordPress how to evolve without introducing breaking changes.

Announce a New CMS Called "Acquia"

Then, take all the ideas and lessons learned with Drupal that were destined for Drupal 8 and create a clean from-the-ground-up implementation of a next generation CMS targeting those who work rather program at the level of a framework but prefer to have more of the features needs for content management ready-built and available so as not to require people to reinvent the wheel.

Launching an Acquia CMS would have the benefit of being new in a way that could appeal to more than just the existing Drupal user base that does want to level up but not abandon Drupal. And Acquia is already a very strong company that has a stellar enterprise sales and support team so they would be in a great position to market a new CMS, and launching it would give them a stronger offer to sell to and support for their customers.

Acquia CMS could become the better alternative to Symfony that offers more functionality without all the legacy cruft of Drupal instead of Symfony being viewed as the better alternative to the Drupal CMS that carries so much baggage which is where I think things are headed.

Give Developers Something NEW To Adopt

And this branding is not just for technical improvements, it’s more important for positioning reasons.

Acquia CMS could have none of the negative associations developed by prior users of Drupal. Acquia CMS would be free to address all the problems I outlined in my prior blog post. And Acquia could once again become the CMS mindshare leader, a position that Drupal previously held IMO.

But Wait, Don’t Listen to Me!

If Drupal/Acquia/Dries does follow my advice, it would probably mean that I’d loose opportunities to work on certain future projects. The type of work I do with WordPress is most often competitive with Drupal in the minds the stakeholders deciding the platform the project will use. So I really hope they do not listen. :)

But hell, if they do follow this advice I would evaluate Acquia CMS and might even consider using it instead of WordPress in the future.

But really Dries if you are listening, please don’t! I’m currently really happy with the progression of WordPress and doing this would just throw a monkey wrench into my future works.

So nothing to see here; just carry on as planned. Nothing to see. :)

UPDATE

In the first version of this post I incorrectly referred to the fork as "Backstory", not "Backdrop" and I did not include a link to the Backdrop website nor mentioned Nate Haug. I have corrected the post.

Thanks to commenters Doug Vann, Brian and Jen Lampton for pointing out my error.

Who Do You Recommend to Design a WordPress Website?

Here’s an email I got a few days ago from someone I met at a Meetup about 6 months ago:

Hi Mike,

I have a friend looking for setting up a non-profit website and they want to use WordPress. I was wondering if you’d be able to help with this, or if not if you know of someone you can recommend who does WordPress website design? My friend needs mostly graphics work, but also need help setting up their WordPress site. They already have the logo and the content. Their budget for this is around US$1000.

- Thanks!

Déjà Vu

I get an email similar to the above about once a week on average. It seems I’ve become branded in the eyes of many people in Atlanta as "The WordPress Guy" even though I don’t do what most people think of when they think of "People who do WordPress"; i.e. I don’t design nor do I build WordPress-based websites[1].

<sigh> :)

Pay it Forward

But when someone asks for help I really do want to help.

I’d never fault anyone for not knowing that I’m the wrong person to ask. And I also wouldn’t fault someone who doesn’t know how much it costs to hire a WordPress specialist; if someone is not a immersed in the web world how could they know?

No More 1-off Emails

Still, I’ve written a response to this type of email more times than I care to count. Speaking of, a few days ago a blog post by Eric Mann inspired me to stop replying long form to emails and to start writing blog posts instead.

So here goes.

A Custom Website Design for US$1000?

Let’s talk about that US$1000 budget. In the Atlanta area we have over ten (10) Fortune 500 companies and as a result we probably have over 100 digital agencies, all directly or indirectly serving those large companies as well most of the midsize companies in the area. Good graphic designers are in high demand here, and they are used to being very well paid. I’m not sure, but I expect the same is true in most major US cities as well.

For US$1000 it might be reasonable to expect to three (3) design comps for your future website’s home page. But it’s highly unlikely you’ll find a quality designer to generate a custom design for an entire site, encode the design into HTML+CSS, convert the code it into a WordPress theme, install WordPress at a hosting company, research, select and then install the various WordPress plugins needed for the features desired, and finally configure everything, all the while taking input from a client who is likely to constantly question aspects of the implementation. All for only US$1000.

And the previous paragraph assumes you can even find someone with the skill to do all those things rather than needing to find a team or to assemble a team of different skills to build the site.

Of course you might get really lucky and find a student from SCAD, Creative Circus, Art Institute, or Portfolio Center who would be willing to build your website for US$1000, assuming your student has already worked extensively with WordPress as a hobby.

So like I said, you might get really lucky…

What Should My Website Cost?

But what price is reasonable to expect?

Those who build WordPress websites know the "How Much?" question can be a landmine. Quoting a price too early can get a WordPress sitebuilder into hot water. I’ve seen WordPress websites cost between free – self-serve at WordPress.com – and US$500k or more. How can a site builder know how to price a website prior to fully understanding its requirements?

Price really depends on both what the client needs as well as what the client wants/expects. And the latter is rarely consistent with the former. For example, does a divorce attorney’s website really need a Flash-based header showing storm clouds, and lightning strikes on hover?!? (yes, that is an actual client request, no demand, that I heard from one of my friends who is a sitebuilder.)

WHICH IS WHY I LOVE this website price calculator:

It was built by Erik Wolf who runs ZeroG Creative. It walks a wannabe website client through a series of questions that help the prospect understand some of the things can affect price and by what magnitude.

Here are some of the questions:

  • "Are you planning on hiring a designer/firm?"
  • "How many people will be involved in the decision-making process?",
  • "Will your website require eCommerce?",
  • "Will your site require social media integration?", and
  • "Will you need a dynamic photo gallery that you can update yourself?".

Depending on the options selected Erik’s price calculator generates prices between US$500 and US$16,500, where for $500 you basically get a site and theme installed, nothing more. And for small business websites I’d say that’s pretty close although frankly I’d expect more like US$1000 and US$25,000.

What About Non-US People?

Note those prices above are for US-based WordPress developers.

And yes, you can pay significantly less to have a WordPress site built by someone outside the USA. But it’s also possible that you will pick the wrong person and that person will either not deliver or will deliver something that doesn’t match your expectation after your entire budget has been spent.

Offshoring can work great for certain type of projects if you have the luxury to pay to try numerous people to find the one that really meets your needs. But if you have only enough budget to try one person, your taking a big risk with your money. And you’ll have no recourse if they fail you.

So caveat emptor if you hire your web developer off Elance.

Agency Projects for Large Companies

By the way, if you are trying to determine the cost of a WordPress website for your Fortune 500 employer expect that your site will cost between US$100k and US$500k.

Why the huge difference in price between small business websites and large business websites? In a word, "Expectations."

More specifically, because of their collective need to see exhaustive design variations, their need to allow your numerous stakeholders to control and approve every detail, their insistence that unrealistic deadlines be met, their expectation that every aspect is perfect upon first preview of features, their desire for constantly scheduling unnecessary and unproductive meetings, and their IT department’s insistence upon using a hosting company that has no expertise in WordPress and no desire to learn it.

But I digress.

But Do You Really Need a Designer?

Considering the budget of US$1000, maybe a "Website Designer for graphics work" is not really what is needed. Maybe what they need is a what I like to call a "Site Builder."

A Site Builder is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, with respect to WordPress. This is someone who can setup a web host, install and configure WordPress, select an off-the-shelf theme and tweak it to incorporate the logo, and finally add and configure various plugins to add functionality such as email signup forms, social media integration and optimization for SEO.

To further illustrate the difference between a Designer and a Site Builder I roughly categorize WordPress skills as one of these where many people having more than one (1), but rarely more than two or three:

  • User/Author (Content writer)
  • Layout/Graphic Designer (Photoshop)
  • HTML Coder (HTML+CSS)
  • Themer (WordPress Themes)
  • Front-End Developer (Javascript/AJAX Developer)
  • Back-End Developer (PHP/MySQL/Plugin Developer) <– This is me
  • and finally Site Builder (Installs/Configures/Adds a Theme and Plugins)

So for a US$1000 budget I think it’s realistic to find a US-based consultant who can deliver a basic website, assuming the client understands the limitations of using off-the-shelf themes and plugins, i.e. but no custom design and custom PHP or Javascript code. It’s a lot like buying a car; you might not like the wood-trim dash but if you chose a model that only comes with a wood-trim dash, that’s what you get.

Other WordPress Specialties?

I tend to want to make my lists exhaustive, so in that vein I might as well list these specialties too, for the record:

  • eCommerce Specialist - Expertise in online retail and payment processing
  • SEO Specialist - Optimizes for search engines
  • Security Specialist - Reviews code for security holes
  • Performance Specialist - Helps developer improve performance
  • Hosting Specialist - Configures servers for high scalability

What are Off-the-Shelf Themes?

Yeah, I threw that bit of jargon in there when I mentioned Off-The-Shelf Themes. If you are not familiar with this term it refers to packages of design and code that you can purchase from 3rd party vendors that, once installed will update the look and feel of your WordPress-based website.

In it’s 10 years WordPress has spawned a large number of commercial theme vendors, more than 100, although the vast majority of themes are probably sold by 10 or fewer vendors.

Look for an Existing Theme.

If you need a website and your budget is small I’d recommend you surf the main theme vendors websites to find a theme you could envision your future site using. If you can find one that meets all your needs, your low budget website might just be able to be reality.

The following list are the theme vendors I know the best, in alpha order (if you are a fan of another theme vendor feel free to list in the comments.):

But Don’t Expect Significant Changes

Please do realize though it is very difficult for a Site Builder, Graphic Designer or even HTML Coder to make more than trivial changes to the look-and-feel of an off-the-shelf theme without a huge expense. Themes can be very complex beasts and it often takes as long for someone to learn how to modify someone else’s theme than it does to create one from scratch.

So please don’t put your Site Builder in the position of having to explain to you why your "simple change" is really a very time-consuming and labor intensive task (that they will have to bill you for, if they will even agree to do it.) Instead, have them explain to you what is easy and what is hard and then only ask them to do the easy (and inexpensive) things. Your willingness to appreciate their efforts will keep them wanting to service you in the future when you need additional support.

Finally, Who Do I Recommend?

So who do I recommend to build your WordPress-based small business website here in Atlanta? Frankly in good faith I can’t recommend anyone. Why? Because I’ve never worked on a team building a small business website before so any recommendations I would make would really just be me telling you who I know.

That said, I can tell you who I know that specializes in building WordPress websites, in the Atlanta area. Here they are, listed in order of how well I know them (note: I believe all of these have minimum fees higher than US$1000):

There are a lot of others I know outside of Atlanta, but most of the requests I get are from people in Atlanta and thus I’m listing those I know who serve my local area.

And yes I know, it’s a potential faux pas for me to create this list as I’ve most certainly forgotten someone; if it was you who I have forgotten please accept my profuse apology and leave a comment with your contact information below.

Friends, Family or DIY?

Finally, if you or your friend cannot find a WordPress specialist to build your website within your budget, maybe you can find a friend or family member who can help? WordPress powers almost 20% of the web so that means you probably already know a friend of a friend at least who has set up their own WordPress website and can help you get your site going. Ask on Facebook, maybe?

If you are a non-profit, as above, maybe you can find someone passionate about your non-profit’s mission who knows how to set up a WordPress site; they might be willing to work for significantly below market rates.

And if all else fails, do it yourself. It really is possible for a reasonably intelligent person with moderate computer skills to install and configure WordPress; it just takes a bit of stick-to-it-iveness and lots of Google searches to figure out how to do it and launch it yourself.

Anyway, hope this helps.

-Mike Schinkel
WordPress Platform Architect

Footnotes:

  1. Instead of designing and building small business websites I architect and build products based on WordPress for software companies and agencies. I call myself a "WordPress Platform Architect." My focus is very narrow and as such I don’t develop the experience needed to build websites for small businesses. I can’t help select a theme and I don’t know which plugins work best. And I’m as far from being a designer as any web person has the potential to be. But if you want to use WordPress to implement a complex site and need a specialist to architect if for your team to then perfect, I’m your guy.