DrupalCon 2008: Dries Buytaert and the future of Drupal

I got to the DrupalCon 2008 keynote late, so I missed the updates on what has changed in Drupal 6 (they are laid out here).  Dries blew through a fairly detailed presentation, and in the absence of his actual slides, I’ll recap what I can from memory as well as the detailed notes captured by Kent Bye on the Lullabot site (a lot of this is apparently a reworking of his Barcelona speech).

(There are dozens of responses to his keynote online, but I’ll point to my Belgian friend’s Roel and Jo’s Krimson blog for some link love).

Dries showed some fascinating early results of usability research coming out of the University of New Mexico usability lab.  I talked briefly with Neil Drumm later, who was part of the group that spent a week long at the lab, and yes, there really was a one-way glass windows that the research looked through.  And according to all accounts – it was painful.  Experienced webbies spent 30 minutes doing tasks that for Drupals users takes less than 10 minutes (they were asked to create a simple website that allowed users post materials; there was a requirement that the materials have additional information beyond just title and body, which is what stumped most of the testers).  According to Dries, one user said Drupal made them feel stupid.  Whoa.

Unsurprisingly, the main focus of Drupal 7 development will be on usability, user experience and end-user improvements.  Based on a series of surveys Dries has done, he decided that 70% of the improvements should be focused on end-users, and 30% on developer-focused improvements.  The complete list of these was too long for me to grok (the Lullabot post covers all of this in detail) – improved media handling was at the top of the list.

(As an aside, I heard several independent raves for MediaMover, a multiple-media format handler that can deal with media files as attachments or off-site files, using Amazon’s S3 service.)

In Drupal 7 related announcements, Dries announced he is looking for a branch maintainer for Drupal 7. He also announced that the redesign of Drupal.org (oh hell yes) is now opening up for general comment and participation.  In other updates, Dries said that the proposed development schedule would be 1 year per version – which strikes me as pretty aggressive, given all the sites we’ll all need to support as Drupal 6 gets ever more popular.  In addition, the historical 5-month dev and 7-month code freeze cycle could be turned on it’s head to a 9-month dev and 3-month code freeze timeline – IF all the developers submitted their code to rigorous standardized testing.  Oof.  Good luck – but judging by the crowd response, it’s necessary.

Dries then talked about the extended future of Drupal – he made the point that the growth curve of Drupal can’t really allow for a second chance – it either grows and gets adopted in a big way, or it wil ultimately fail. The story of Apple’s rebirth aside, Dries doesn’t see any chance that Drupal could wane in popularity and then come back because of some future improvements.  The improvements – and the confidence that improvements will continue to arrive – need to happen now, and continue to happen.   And if anything, the fast pace of development and module improvements and fixes – ultimately, the community behind all of that – is the strongest facet of Drupal

Finally, Dries made some interesting predictions – or suggestions? – of the direction of Drupal, moving from the idea that nodes are the base of Drupal which can be sliced and diced in almost any manner possible, to fields being the base of Drupal (this is already happening with the strong focus on CCK and the flexibility of content types).

He wandered into semantic web and RDF land, which lost me a little bit, but the actual application of the theory was impressive.  Based on the cross-web RDF format search language SPARQL, they were able to pull in data from several open online sources and make some impressive mapping mashups on Drupal (locations mapped and timezones in a sidebar of all registered DrupalCon attendees; sample “friends” in Bosotn addresses, cross-mapped with events happening thorughout the city during the DrupalCon week…).  View the video here.

Finally, it’s great to see Dries up there in front of 800 people, totally relaxed, and using the type of humor in his slides that would make most seasoned “business men and women” raise their eyebrows in discomfort.


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