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Mike Sugarbaker Reports

October 28, 2002 | Up at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a schoolkid-oriented museum at the crest of the Berkeley hills, the only trace of San Francisco that's visible above the fog is Sutro Tower, or, as my San Francisco hipster acquaintances like to call it, "Big Friend." The Open Source Content Management Conference, being held up here in the same auditorium where Mom used to leave me for Saturday afternoon to watch obscure educational cartoons, is the kind of environment where it's easy to believe that communications technology is all that matters. It does matter, though. If you use a blog, are part of an online community or read a major web publication, content management software shapes the information you get, and the discourse you make. Whether the open-source part matters to you depends on your political lean and your pocketbook, but blogs wouldn't be anywhere if so much blogging software weren't free as in beer - and new forms for online communication come about when people are free to hack around. That's why I went to cover the proceedings for Mindjack: to see if anything new is possible, if any new doors have opened towards making the dream shapes I have in mind.

The first attendee I talked to said he was building a business and therefore building a CMS - or, he quickly added, trying not to build one. I joked that it seemed almost as hard not to build your own as to build it. Serious open-source CMSes often suffer from unwieldiness and feature bloat, by necessity. As Joel Spolsky, developer of the closed-source desktop CMS CityDesk, has said on his popular blog, it may be true that 80% of users use 20% of the features of a program, but they all use a different 20%. CMS has this problem in spades, as every content flow has to fit a different set of business processes - usually rife with politics and executives' sometimes-oddball pet theories about what the UI should be. Weblog managers like Blogger hit substantially less than the 20% the average business needs, but what they do hit, they hit dead on, precisely because they're so limited. It's like the example Alan Cooper quotes in his usability opus The Inmates Are Running The Asylum: those great little rolling suitcases with the pullout handles were designed exclusively for stewardesses, but now everybody wants one because they're so relentlessly good at the specific things that frequent travelers need. Do certain things incredibly smoothly and be free, and the world is yours.

The blog talk was very light at OSCOM, which surprised me. The closest we got to a formal presentation on anything bloglike was the presentation on PostNuke and Xoops, two spins on the community-weblog model pioneered by Slashdot. Most of the software packages being represented in formal talks were content management frameworks - that is, not CMSes, but tools to build exactly the CMS your business needs. If the scheduled talks were any indication, the attendees wanted to hear about tools, not shapes - how to do it, not what they might do. Community or new modes of communication were barely in the picture.

Given all that, Charles Nesson's keynote seemed discordant, and pleasantly so. The bulk of his talk centered around Jamaica, and the various educational and correctional organizations that his Internet and Society Conference at Harvard is working with. Specifics of software weren't the point, although I was tantalized by a mention of an education package called H20, in which professors pose questions, students provide possible answers or comments, and then rate each other's comments. Alone amongst the presenters, Nesson expressed lots of interest in the possibilities of content management for forms of content besides text. He brought up a Harvard-run digital music project in a low-income computer cluster in Rock Springs, Massachusetts, where underprivileged kids learned about computers by making music. At first, I thought some jackass in the audience hadn't turned his laptop speakers down, but it turns out Nesson was playing the result of one of these workshops from his presentation machine the whole time. I couldn't tell it from professionally produced downtempo.

The "digital divide" debate obviously looks different to Nesson than it does to many of the rest of us, who might conclude, like Bill Gates famously did, that there's not much point in bringing information technology to countries and communities that lack running water and sanitation. Nesson's work in Jamaica through the Internet and Society Conference shows that it isn't that simple. By targeting educational and correctional facilities - the carrot and the stick in high-poverty societies - IT professionals can contribute to some real change. Maybe not in the poorest of poor countries, but Jamaica at least has the infrastructure to plug computers in, in some buildings. Giving teachers good tools in schools, and in educational environments in prisons, is a small enough task to be doable and a meaningful enough task to put energy into.

After Nessom's keynote, the technical talks began. I won't do the complete rundown of all the "competing" open source content management frameworks. I'll cut to the chase: the winner is Plone. This "productized" take on the six-year-old web application framework Zope was the package with the most tools, the most professionalism, the most traction, and above all, the most buzz. (The folks from Red Hat, representing the former Ars Digita, were certainly professional but didn't have the same verve when it came to commenting on other presentations and making themselves a part of the whole discussion - professionalism in the sense of the sciences rather than business. And it never hurts to have free T-shirts for everyone.) Plone is not quite 1.0 yet, and in my own experimentation I found it to be not quite as stable as unvarnished Zope, but the finished Plone will have a lot more, well, finish. Where Zope is a wide-open toolset that doesn't totally make it clear what you can do with it when you open it up, Plone will help would-be content managers dive right in.

Plone installs easily on Windows and Unix, and has its own built-in web server - like every framework we actually saw a demo of, its interface pops up in a web browser. Like in Zope, you create folders and pages in what looks an awful lot like a file system. Unlike Zope, Plone has a complete collection of pre-coded widgets to manage things like workflow (CMS-speak for making sure you don't get anything past your editor or your boss), revision control (sophisticated Undo that reaches back forever), and live editing (fix your site from inside your site). What presenter and engineer George Runyan made the biggest deal of was the graphic design: "editors and content creators don't want to use something ugly." I'm not saying that nothing else at the show had any impressive aspects - Wyona does neat tricks for inline WYSIWYG page editing that I've got to learn more about, and other packages like Midgard and DBPrism offer aggressively abstracted XML flows suitable for plugging into everything from databases to printing presses (as does Plone, probably). But the chief differences between most packages, and the bulk of the content of their talks, were implementation details: WebDAV, Cocoon, PHP, model-view-controller, various technical alphabet soups and component stews. The Plone team grasps that this stuff isn't going to change the way we communicate until it looks and feels more approachable for non-coders.

If we'd seen more hands-on demonstration of Xoops and PostNuke, they might have fit neatly into that category as well. PostNuke is what gets called, sometimes dismissively, a slashclone - a software package designed to run sites that end up looking by default very much like the wildly successful tech-news site Slashdot. PostNuke itself splintered from, and has mostly overtaken, a package called PHPNuke, and Xoops (there doesn't appear to be a standard way to pronounce that, sorry) derives from PostNuke in turn. This kind of profusion is both a benefit and a drawback of open source, but the confusion about what's what, and what's good, seems to be waning. The point is that the Slashdot model - a webloggish front page with long spurs of commentary off each post, and many categories by which to organize the news - is adaptable to things that look much more like, well, that content that you want to manage.

Michelle Alexandria was a fairly unusual person at the show - the only female presenter, the only non-white presenter, and significantly, the only presenter with a solid background in the non-techie communications industry. When she isn't the documentation head and sort-of-product manager for the open-source Xoops, she's the webmaster for the entertainment magazine Eclipse. uses Xoops, whose lead developers all live overseas, to maintain a bustling site with multiple news flows and a large forum. Alexandria talked about how content management tools that not only include community but leverage it, to bring in more content and do quality control, utterly changed what she did, to the point where she got involved in the Xoops project.

Gregor Rothfuss of the PostNuke project used his time to talk generally about the role of community in a content site. Rothfuss was also one of the attending members of the OSCOM board. I couldn't help but notice that out of all the presenters, the only ones who attempted to do anything other than a strict dog-and-pony show about their product were OSCOM organizers. Michael Wechner's talk on Wyona was rather brief because he wanted to make time to talk about peer-to-peer technology - the crowd seemed confused by the conflict between the free-for-all models of common P2P apps, and the top-down nature of most CMS architectures. (One attendee pointed to Groove Networks' eponymous non-free platform, which uses the tools of peer-to-peer without making it part of the user model, and could indeed have CMS tools built into it.) I already covered Nessom's talk. Why was there so little talk about what the forms we build for people to pur themselves into are going to be, and so much talk abolut how to build them?

It may just be that before open-source content management can get creative, it has to get a foothold. That's what Friday's Interop sessions were all about - the necessary nuts and bolts that all these different frameworks have to have in common before they can do things like have a standard Mozilla interface, for example. Paul Everitt of Zope Corporation spoke eloquently about the challenges and rewards of interoperability in his earlier Zope spiel. "The client side is where interop gets rolling." In keeping with Plone's focus on the end user, Everitt concentrated on motivating CMS coders with real user goals. "Mozilla's not close enough to where people live and do their work. Let's get into Word."

When I spoke to him, Rothfuss agreed that CMS had to get on firm technical ground before innovating, but he put an interesting spin on it: "We have to get social interop first. We want to get people talking to one another. Then, we want to have something to show for all the talk." Nesson elaborated on the same theme: "This morning Eric [Wiseman, board member] asked me what I was thinking, and I said, 'I'm trying to figure out what they all think content management is.' " That's a kind of interoperability dialogue too - seeing if the mental models fit. "They're all coders. They are only just realizing that they're in the communications business. Whereas I'm coming from education and communication and have only recently come around to code." Communication precedes creativity. Hopefully, the next few years will see CMS developers come to terms about the details, so they can start talking about new wants and needs - then we users can get some new communication tools to be creative with.

Mike Sugarbaker is a writer, coder and layabout based in Berkeley. He previously reviewed Lawrence Weschler's Lemon for Mindjack.


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