Looking back at 2005

from January 1, 2006

This past year has brought about many changes. Early in 2005, when we started up pingV, Katherine and I had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve in five years, ten years…. Those plans are still there, still in the works. But wasn’t clear back then was how we ourselves would work our own ways down both the internet and television paths towards the inevitable convergence, when interactive television — the medium combining the hyperlinking freedom of the web with the full-motion video of television — becomes a reality.

The television path was fairly clear. DVD authoring was a natural choice, given its nascent interactivity (and the fact that our experience, equipment and training made it possible). The future of the DVD format is still uncertain, but once a format is settled, growth in the HD DVD area will explode, and give us the first glimpses of what new kinds of interactivity will be possible — and, more important, will catch on with users. Count me as one who is really looking forward to NAB this coming year.

The internet path was less obvious to me. When we started the business, my experience with Drupal had been limited to five or six small websites. But as I was helping people configure their systems, and tweak designs here and there — and as I got more familiar with Drupal and realized just how flexible and powerful a CMS it is — the path began to take shape: design, configure and host Drupal- (and CivicSpace-) powered websites for clients ready to step up from static brochureware sites, simpler blogging tools or proprietary systems that had locked up their opportunities to improvise and expand.

What really added to the appeal of this approach for me was the Open Source nature of the Drupal project. I love the idea of community-built tools. I love the self-empowerment that results from truly owning one’s own website code — something you don’t get with proprietary systems. As a lifelong entrepreneur, anything that helps empower people is exciting. Entrepreneurialism is all about self-motivated action, blazing one’s own trail (even if following a well-marked map), and creating one’s own enterprise. It’s a self-empowering process. And the spirit of Open Source seems to capture that.

So Drupal it was. Now even though I had been creating websites for ten years, mostly for myself but sometimes for companies I worked for, getting under Drupal’s hood was a bit daunting — very much like the feeling I have opening the hood of my Outback with the intention of fixing something. With the car, I just close the hood and call the garage. But with Drupal, I dug in. And though I didn’t get grease on my hands, I confess there were times when I felt I had mud in my brain. Drupal is an efficient, yet very complex, core package, with code mature enough that knowing (or learning) PHP is not quite enough.

Unlike my experiences with phpBB and Mambo, however, I’ve found the core to be rock solid. Rarely does an error in a contributed module do more than simply render that module ineffective. And that’s a blessing. Because if your system remains up and running when dealing with a problem, there’s much more opportunity, imho, to learn something from the fixing process. In the past year, that fixing process for me has mostly been a matter of filing or finding a bug report, and then reading and learning from the fixes provided by others. It’s been a fruitful learning process, to the point where now I’ve been contributing php snippets to the effort. (This isn’t to say that other CMSs like Mambo are inherently unstable. But my experience was that a buggy module in Mambo would take the entire system down. It all just seemed so … brittle … to me. A subjective take, fwiw.)

What has always surprised me about Drupal, though, is its flexibility. Whether you need a community network site, a business store site or an artist’s showcase site, Drupal can be used as a robust and powerful core. I think a lot of people try Drupal without realizing that power and flexibility, and end up feeling overwhelmed, like someone looking for a Vespa ending up in the cockpit of a Lear jet. (“But how do I go?”) A Drupal-powered site can be configured for very simple operation (such as a personal blog); it can be as easy as a scooter. But it’s Drupal’s capacity for complexity that appeals to me — because the complexity is in possibilities. Drupal can seem complicated because there are so many ways to do so many different things; but it’s the intersection of all the cleanly-coded variables that results in an astounding matrix of potential paths. I much prefer the world of possibilities with complexity over systems that have only one (usually quirky) way of doing something — especially if I’m building a site for a client.

But I have to say, I feel the biggest blessing of the year when it comes to Drupal has been the Drupal community. The core developers, led by Dries Buytaert (who now has started his own blog), have been taking Drupal forward in great strides, and the developers of the contributed modules have brought some wonderful insight and innovation into the project, resulting in unexpected and often very exciting features and benefits. And it’s only because of these developers, and the Drupal community itself, that I felt, and feel now all the more so, that investing our time and energy and resources in learning the workings of Drupal and becoming part of the Drupal community is worthwhile. Drupal is a solid investment for virtually any forward-looking website project.

2006 looks to be an exciting year. While wrapping up a major community website and a complex instructional DVD project many moons in the making, we enter the new year with a redesign for a popular blog and a re-branding and design for an organization doing some wonderful work in the non-profit world. What else the year holds for us, who can say? We’ll find out when we make it happen.

Happy New Year!

Originally published at pingv.com.