Open Source Web Development Platforms

Several of the most popular web development platforms, including WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, are “open source” software. What does that mean? Why should you care?

Open source software is developed in a very different way than proprietary software. Proprietary software is developed along the same lines any commercial product is developed, under the control and direction of the decision makers in a corporation. Open source software is developed by volunteers who work on everything from the source code to bug testing to documentation.

The open source software movement dates back to the 1980s. The Linux operating system, which is now one of the main operating systems used for web hosting servers, was one of the first major open source software efforts. Open source software is available for free to anyone who wants to use it; the source code is available to engineers who wish to change, improve or adapt it.

The philosophy behind open source software is well stated in this mission statement from the Open Source Initiative:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

We in the open source community have learned that this rapid evolutionary process produces better software than the traditional closed model, in which only a very few programmers can see the source and everybody else must blindly use an opaque block of bits.

So how does this work in the real world, without descending into chaos? These pages can give you a glimpse into the process:

Although open source projects generally begin as the brainchild of a small group of people, the larger open source web development platforms have spawned nonprofit associations dedicated to advancing the development of the software. The WordPress Foundation, Drupal Association and OpenSourceMatters (for Joomla) are nonprofits backing these three popular web development platforms.

Although WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are the most popular, they are far from the only options. As of this writing, there are 141 different content management systems listed at opensourcecms.com. And that is just content management systems. Virtually every type of software can be found in an open source version.

In addition to contributing to the core software, programmers can expand the capabilities of a web development platform by writing add-ons for specific purposes. These are called modules in Drupal, extensions in Joomla, and plugins in WordPress, but they all serve the same purpose of expanding the functionality of the platform for specific applications.

As of this writing, there are 15,614 plugins available for WordPress. Plugins (and their Drupal and Joomla counterparts) add specific functionality to a website: a photo gallery, social media integration, ratings systems, events management—you name it, there is probably a plugin available. The advantage of plugins is that a non-programmer can easily add advanced functionality to a website. On this website, WordPress plugins are the basis for the portfolio, the home page animation, and the contact form; they protect comments, forms and email addresses from spammers and display my twitter feed on the blog pages.

Open source web development platforms are free, and make it easy for a non-programmer to build a sophisticated website. There’s a lot to like about them. But they do have their pitfalls. In a subsequent post, I’ll dig a little deeper into the pros and cons of open source web development platforms.

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Building the future of news on WordPress

I attended the Raleigh WordPress Meetup last night at the First Flight Venture Center in RTP. Tony Zeoli, lead developer for the Reese Felts Digital News Project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He demonstrated the website reesenews.org, which was launched this past week.

The home page of reesenews.org

The home page of reesenews.org,
on November 4, 2010

The local news site is built entirely on WordPress 3.1, with an amalgam of third-party plug-ins. They did some custom programming to “widgetize” some of the plug-ins (in other words, adapt the functionality as a module that could be easily dropped onto a WordPress page or post by a non-programmer). They are in the process of building a custom, open source theme, which they hope to release in the spring.

The dropdown navigation interface for reesenews.org

The dropdown navigation interface for reesenews.org

The interactive design of the website is influenced by the iPad, most notably in the navigation. Instead of a traditional navigation bar or sidebar list, the navigation is that tiny orange button below the logo, which says “nav”. Touching that button—a typical iPad gesture—drops down the navigation, some of which leads to other site categories, some to offsite links. My guess is that some modification to this will evolve in time, even if it remains a dropdown element. To have the core navigation in a small button that is the visual equivalent of the 5-day weather forecast (the corresponding button on the right), devalues the main window into the website architecture.

I would expect a list of local cities on a local news website to link to news about what’s going on in those cities. I would also expect to see the second largest city in the coverage area to be in that list, but apparently the folks at UNC consider Bynum and Saxapahaw to be more newsworthy than Durham. As it turns out, the city names do not link to local news, but to the output of the Local Market Explorer plug-in, which automatically serves up data on real estate prices, school districts, walk score, a Yelp feed of restaurants, a TeachStreet feed of local classes. Very cool information, even if the link was misleading. Too bad there’s nothing there about Durham.

Want to see what drives the Reese News website? Take a look at some of the third party plug-ins that they have integrated into their website:

Outbrain is a content recommendation system that provides ways of serving readers similar content, increasing engagement and page views. Tweetmeme provides for easy tweeting of articles.

IntenseDebate is a commenting system that provides comment threading, commenter profiles, integration with twitter and facebook, email and RSS notifications, voting and rating, and moderation tools. Let’s hope that they attract more intelligent commenters than the News and Observer.

Umapper is used for creating interactive maps, such as election results. Nextgen Gallery is used for photo galleries (NextGen is the same fine gallery plug-in that drives the portfolio here on redberetdesign.com). Brightcove is their video server, with embedding from Vipers Video Quicktags.

There are approximately 100 students at UNC involved in Reese News, from every discipline within UNC’s School of Journalism and mass Communications. Like any news organization, that requires an editorial process and workflow management. Reese News uses EditFlow for coordination and collaboration.

Despite some questions I have about the interface, I am impressed at the Reese News team’s rethinking of how to gather and present news in a 21st century context. And as fan of WordPress and of the open source community, it is inspiring to see what they have been able to build by leveraging tools that are available to all of us.

Have something you’d like to tell the Reese News team? Click on the Feedback button to the right, which is provided by the Get Satisfaction plug-in, or just go to their feedback page. It’s not just a contact form. You can give ideas, ask questions, report problems, or just tell them you think this is a pretty cool idea. You can also read, respond and rate what others have said.

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The Cobbler’s New Shoes

It’s been a long time coming, but the new and improved Red Beret Design website is finally up and running. In keeping with the tale of the cobbler whose children are barefoot because he’s too busy making shoes for others, I’ve been busy enough over the last few years designing for clients that my own website redesign has proven elusive.

This website is not just an aesthetic reconstruction, but is an unveiling of what I’m calling Red Beret Design 2.0. Six years in business has enabled me to develop a better understanding of the market and what Red Beret Design has to offer to clients who are looking for graphic design and related services.

The big changes in focus are:

A focus on entrepreneurs and start-up companies

In exploring what is most unique about my own skills and experience, it is my insight into the unique needs of high-growth start-up companies that stands out most. So I am focusing on offering services specifically to help new companies get off the ground — whether that means helping with the presentation materials needed to obtain funding, or the branding and marketing materials needed to launch the new business.

Branding and marketing strategy, especially inbound marketing

This is not so much an expanded service as an acknowledgment that Red Beret Design does much more than just design. The scope of what I provide often goes far beyond graphic design, especially where web design is concerned. I am in the process of developing more formal marketing services, having become a Certified Inbound Marketing Professional and a service partner of Hubspot.

Developing powerful partnerships with talented people

Some of the most successful projects I’ve worked on have been in collaboration with other independent professionals and microbusinesses, including writers, illustrators, photographers, marketing specialists and web developers. This has been a real win for clients, as they get a high level of talent, targeted services and personal attention without paying for the overhead of a lot of staff and services they don’t need. I’m offering to recruit and direct custom-targeted creative teams with the exact skills that your business needs.

Personal branding

It’s probably no surprise that someone who named her business after her hat would have an interest in personal branding. So much so that I’m launching another company with one of those talented professionals I was telling you about. In the next few weeks, Distinguishing Factors will make its official debut. Distinguishing Factors is a collaborative project between Red Beret Design and Yes Career Services, the company of career strategist Kelly Welch. We will be combining Kelly’s experience and certification in William Arruda’s 360Reach personal branding methodology with custom-designed personal branding materials, identity development and inbound marketing.

Credit where credit is due

I would like to offer thanks to the giants on whose shoulders I stand. This website is built in WordPress, so thanks are due to Matt Mullenweg and the hundreds of others who contribute their efforts to this amazing platform. This theme is based on the Thesis framework by the ever-awesome Chris Pearson. Chris, I cut my teeth on your Cutline theme, and graduated to Thesis. Thanks for making it both easy and fun to design a kick-ass website. And thanks to the many plugin designers, documentation writers and forum commenters who gave me the tools and knowledge to build great websites for my clients. Y’all make the open source pond a pleasure to swim in. And yes, I’ll be getting around to making some contributions soon!

I also want to thank my wonderful clients for keeping me in business for over six years now, and helping me build a portfolio of work that I am proud to display. I literally could not do it without you. And I can no longer conceive of doing anything else.

And to my dear husband Barry, who has put up with me working on this website days, nights, weekends, even sometimes in the middle of the night the last few weeks, not to mention my blathering on about my business while you’re trying to watch the ballgame. Thanks for your patience and all those wonderful home-cooked meals.

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