System Of An Upload

cms-learning-curve

When considering what Content Management System to deploy today, one question needs to be answered first.

Why not just use WordPress?

WordPress was created to be the software behind the popular blogging service¹, and only a few years ago would have been dismissed as little more than that. It was never conceived as a general-purpose content management system, but designed with the singular goal of getting a person’s words and pictures onto the Internet simply and quickly. The thing is though, that is the core functionality of content management. Do it particularly well, and you’re onto something.

Combine that solid core with the ability to add functionality and you’re really onto something. Though invented for blogging, conversion into a different sort of content management system – say a gallery, a forum, or an e-commerce store – is available through third-party plugins. There is a staggering ecosystem of (the last I checked) nearly 29,000 of these. Consequently WordPress has become the most popular CMS in the world. And not by a margin – almost by an order of magnitude. Sixty percent of all content-managed sites use WordPress, one in five out of the ten million most popular sites on the Web. I’ll give that a second to sink in.

But by the same token, using something so well-accepted feels almost like copping out. We’re students of this technology, we’re assumed to be on the cutting edge. What’s the point in being just part of the crowd? There are innumerable content management systems out there. Many use the same attractive PHP + MySQL open source formula. Others again are based on ASP, Java, Perl. Some are even designed specifically to create online galleries, which is certainly closer to what our client needs than a blog is. But while these are worth looking into, the requirements go well beyond just the presentation of images. There is a great deal of text that needs to be easily and well presented, and a dedicated gallery system might not envisage that. The client also needs to manage membership, promote upcoming events, and automatically archive past ones. We will need something extremely flexible, and WordPress scores highly there.

But it’s not alone. Joomla¹ is also designed to be extended – it seems particularly rich in image galleries – and unlike WordPress it was a general-purpose CMS right from the start. It will have to be on our shortlist, especially as the team has had some experience with it in the past. Perhaps the biggest mark against it is that, with only around 6,000 available extensions – about a fifth of what WordPress offers – it just seems less likely that the functionality to meet our client’s needs will be readily available.

Initially, my instinct was to use Drupal. Also designed from the start to be a universal content management system, this one has put even more emphasis on flexibility. So while with WordPress you can have a usable blog virtually the moment it’s installed, Drupal is at first confusing – all you have is a framework, with few features except basic database and user management. Useful functionality is added by downloading and installing “modules”, over 25,000 of which have been contributed by the community, very comparable to WordPress’s 29,000 plugins.

But while plugins and modules might sound like two ways of describing the same thing, there is an important conceptual difference. WordPress extensions are very much goal-orientated. If you wish for example to add gallery functionality to your site, you compare the galleries available and plug in the one that best suits your needs. Drupal modules are function-oriented. To add a gallery, you consider what additional functions it would actually require – image management, display, cataloguing and captioning for example, possibly also resizing and retouching – and add modules for those functions. You’ve got a huge smorgasbord of features to avail of, what you mix is up to you. Such a level of flexibility is both challenging and exciting. A much more precisely customised result should be possible with Drupal, and this is why it is considered by some to be the best CMS of all. But the learning curve is also infamously steep (see illustration). I have to admit that this is part of the attraction. I’ve built several sites based on WordPress and it presented little challenge; the Drupal one I started over two years ago is still far from finished. It definitely represents the greater learning exercise. But that is not the objective today. Even if the team could become sufficiently skilled with Drupal within the timescale, it seems likely that that time could be better spent.

Plus, with Drupal skills being relatively hard to come by, future site maintenance would inevitably be more difficult. Perhaps a clinching argument in favour of WordPress is that, as by far the most popular CMS in use today, future maintenance and improvement should not be a problem. Indeed as an open source tool with both a strong community and the backing of a commercial interest, WordPress would seem to combine the best of both worlds in terms of support.

I wish we could use all three just to see which came out best, but the postgrad workload is too heavy for that. We should be making our decision shortly. For now though, my money’s on WordPress as the one most likely to deliver the client’s requirements without excessive drama.

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¹WordPress the open source blogging software, sometimes also referred to as WordPress.org, should not be confused with WordPress.com, whose business model is the hosting of WordPress-driven websites. Both the software and the hosting service are managed by the Automattic company. An aside: Though basic WordPress.com blogging is free – this site uses it – the feature set would be too limited for our client.
²Actually they style themselves “Joomla!”, but I have a strict policy on companies that expect you to shout their names. This policy being: Shush. 

Truth – There’s An App For That

Back in the day – which, to clear this up once and for all, ran from 1997 until 2003 – I was a big fan of The Brunching Shuttlecocks, perhaps the first really successful Web-based comedy team. Sure there were funny sites before, but they tended to be collections of jokes that could have – and often had – been published in other forms. There were Web incarnations of humour that already existed in other media, such as The Onion. There were webcomics, but again they could have appeared anywhere – if anywhere much still published comics. The Brunching Shuttlecocks though did humour that was, to a large extent, native to the Web.

Which didn’t just mean it was geek humour – though yeah, a lot of it was. More importantly though, much of it was among the first comedy that simply could not have appeared in any other medium. Items like The Bjork Song or Tina The Troubled Teen took advantage of technologies like scripting and object embedding to do jokes in new ways.

The Brunching Shuttlecocks are with us no more alas. The website isn’t even available now due to a hosting dispute, (though word is it will return soon). Main contributors Lore Fitzgerald Sjöberg and Dave Neilsen have long moved on to other things. Despite its eight-year lack of existence though, there’s still a surprisingly active fan community.

And now, you can Brunch (as we say) on your favourite portable Apple product. One of the best-loved items on the site was Good Or Bad?, an interactive feature where readers could vote on whether a random range of bizarre things were, well, good or bad. Votes were collated, and their fundamental value discovered. The free app actually expands on the original idea because it allows you to add your own items for the crowd-sourced assessment of other users, though it comes with the original (and hilarious) Good or Bad? content as ‘seed truth’.

Ever wanted to know whether that feeling you get in your stomach when a lift goes down, or the weirdly satisfying sensation of accidentally treading on a snail, or the big button at the pedestrian crossing that doesn’t apparently do anything is a good thing or bad? Now you can, definitively.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

Beginning Of The End Of An Empire?

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...
"Let me see, what to call a tedious, overweening news editor... Evertrue Pratthandle? Raphael Trundlethroat? Ted?

Like many others, I bought the News Of The World for the last time today. Like many others, I also bought it for the first time today. Morbid curiosity. Of course this issue is hardly representative. It’s devoted to showing what a loss it is to the news publishing world.

To this end they reprint their very first front page from 1843. It sets out the paper’s stall in prose which, if you didn’t know was the real thing, you’d take for a parody of long-winded Victorian pomposity:

The general utility of all classes is the idea with which this paper originated. To give to the poorer classes of society a paper which would suit their means, and to the middle, as well as the rich, a journal, which from its immense circulation, should command their attention, have been the influencing motives that have caused the appearance of “NEWS OF THE WORLD”. We shall make no apologies for these motives, because, we conceive, that in their accomplishment we shall attain an end, that in the present state of England is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Journalism for the rich man, and journalism for the poor, has up to this time, been so broadly and distinctly marked, as the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich, are from the customs, the squalor, and the dens of the poor.

Can’t seem to decide there whether the poor are objects of pity or their market. Maybe the adverts said “Read it in the comfort of your own hovel!” And what was, with all of those, freaking, commas?

It carries on in this vein for – Christ – over three thousand constipated words. You couldn’t make it up. Hell, Dickens would have had trouble making it up. All reprinting this seems to establish is that the News Of the World was every bit as much a piece of unbearable crap 168 years ago as it was, for the last time, today.

Though presumably it was at least less criminal.

Speaking of which, Murdoch may be in even more trouble than previously thought. As the Telegraph points out, his News International is a US-based corporation, and the US has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) outlawing bribery payments abroad. If found guilty of making payments to British police, News International may be facing fines of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It will be interesting to see how that gets reported on Fox News.

Beginning Of The End Of An Empire?

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...
"Let me see, what to call a tedious, overweening news editor... Evertrue Pratthandle? Raphael Trundlethroat? Ted?

Like many others, I bought the News Of The World for the last time today. Like many others, I also bought it for the first time today. Morbid curiosity. Of course this issue is hardly representative. It’s devoted to showing what a loss it is to the news publishing world.

To this end they reprint their very first front page from 1843. It sets out the paper’s stall in prose which, if you didn’t know was the real thing, you’d take for a parody of long-winded Victorian pomposity:

The general utility of all classes is the idea with which this paper originated. To give to the poorer classes of society a paper which would suit their means, and to the middle, as well as the rich, a journal, which from its immense circulation, should command their attention, have been the influencing motives that have caused the appearance of “NEWS OF THE WORLD”. We shall make no apologies for these motives, because, we conceive, that in their accomplishment we shall attain an end, that in the present state of England is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Journalism for the rich man, and journalism for the poor, has up to this time, been so broadly and distinctly marked, as the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich, are from the customs, the squalor, and the dens of the poor.

Can’t seem to decide there whether the poor are objects of pity or their market. Maybe the adverts said “Read it in the comfort of your own hovel!” And what was, with all of those, freaking, commas?

It carries on in this vein for – Christ – over three thousand constipated words. You couldn’t make it up. Hell, Dickens would have had trouble making it up. All reprinting this seems to establish is that the News Of the World was every bit as much a piece of unbearable crap 168 years ago as it was, for the last time, today.

Though presumably it was at least less criminal.

Speaking of which, Murdoch may be in even more trouble than previously thought. As the Telegraph points out, his News International is a US-based corporation, and the US has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) outlawing bribery payments abroad. If found guilty of making payments to British police, News International may be facing fines of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It will be interesting to see how that gets reported on Fox News.

The End Of The World (As We Know It)

Image representing Rupert Murdoch as depicted ...

Rupert Murdoch is a media mogul in the original sense of the word. He’s not a proprietor so much as he’s an emperor. In order to protect his bid to control the extremely lucrative BSkyB he has simply destroyed the jobs of 200 people, the vast majority of whom are of course innocent. Well, innocent of everything except working for the News of the World. They have been sacrificed to protect his image, to make him seem more clean and innocent. It is the act of a despotic autocrat. And surely it is also a titanic misjudgment. Does it really indicate that he should be in control of even more of the UK’s media?

An unfortunate unintended effect of his decision is that we will never get to see what would have happened. Would the readers of the NOTW have rejected their paper, or are they actually happy enough with that sort of behaviour? Would the advertisers have stayed away, or come back after a suitable interval? We’ll never know.

And so I wonder if it was unintended. Perhaps Murdoch pulled the plug before he was pushed. The public didn’t get to see how easy it would be to bring an offending newspaper down these days. In my estimation, how startlingly easy. He probably doesn’t want them to pick that idea up.

Don’t Call It Hacking

News of the World (album)
I'm Seeing A Whole New Meaning In This Now

Calling it “hacking” makes it sound difficult and technical, when basically what the News Of The World did was phone voicemail boxes that, like most, had easily-guessed PINs. It was spying. It was intrusion. It was burglary. It invaded the lives of innocent people every bit as violently and recklessly as breaking into into their homes and ransacking their bedrooms. Where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, they find a stranger there, manipulating their lives for money.

‘Hacking’ once meant something very different; it was a morally neutral or actually positive word, simply meaning skilled use of computers. Ironically there was even a hacker code of ethics – a concept these debased editors would have to look up.

This has added a great deal more fuel to an already raging debate over libel and privacy law. That reform is desperately needed is, as the “superinjunction” debacle showed, beyond question, but such difficult decisions would be better not made in the context of newspapers carrying out criminal acts. Laws made in anger and haste are likely to be bad for all journalism and all freedom of speech, not just Murdoch’s papers and their like.

And it should be remarked that other British tabloids are quite capable of doing breathtaking violence to basic moral concepts. Look at today’s Daily Express. In the light of a study that failed to find a link between salt and early death, they label all people who discouraged eating salt as ‘fascist’.

That’s what the Daily Express thinks fascists are. Not people who overthrow democracy, who rule by fear, who murder all opposition. People who say you shouldn’t eat too much salt.

Evil is infantile.

(Updated 22:00)

Click On My Face

This is a artistic steganography try. It talks...
There could be a link encoded in this image. There isn't, but there could be.

Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.

An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.

And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.

Ink With Links

A Japanese advertising poster containing QR codes
Adverts with links let you buy on the spot.

When I posted yesterday about QR codes, those little symbols used to put Web links on real-world objects, reader Azijn made this thought-provoking comment:

I find QR codes a bit weird. Why not have an app that can simply recognize a certain default font in which advertisers will agree to publish their URLs? Humans and phones alike can recognize that!

Indeed, I can find no such app. How come? Azijn’s idea would surely work.

But then you have to remember that most design actually happens by accident. QR codes are prevalent for this purpose mainly because they’ve been around long enough to catch on. They were invented by Toyota for labelling components and it was in Japan that they were first used on phones. But that doesn’t mean of course that they’re the best solution.

QR codes did have a couple of advantages. They were designed expressly to be read by machine and have built-in error correction, so they were easier for simple devices to process. But now that phones are very powerful computers they should have little trouble handling text recognition – I doubt if there’s even any need for special fonts¹.

I can think of one way to speed things up though: A typographical convention to indicate where a website address begins and ends, such as putting it between two easily recognised symbols, so that the phone doesn’t need to scan whole pages. Example:

►http://i.doubt.it◄

Any such text will be highlighted on your phone’s screen, showing you that it’s clickable.

Can I get a patent on that?

  1. There have been fonts designed to be easily read by machine since at least the 60s, for example the hardcore OCR-A, the more friendly OCR-B, or the space-age classic Westminster – which I had always thought belonged to NASA or IBM or some such but turns out to have been created by a British bank. These days though Optical Character Recognition software is so good that they are no longer really necessary, though obviously plainer, less ornate fonts are likely to get better results.