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Drupal is for ambitious digital experiences

What feelings does the name Drupal evoke? Perceptions vary from person to person; where one may describe it in positive terms as "powerful" and "flexible", another may describe it negatively as "complex". People describe Drupal differently not only as a result of their professional backgrounds, but also based on what they've heard and learned.

If you ask different people what Drupal is for, you'll get many different answers. This isn't a surprise because over the years, the answers to this fundamental question have evolved. Drupal started as a tool for hobbyists building community websites, but over time it has evolved to support large and sophisticated use cases.

Perception is everything

Perception is everything; it sets expectations and guides actions and inactions. We need to better communicate Drupal's identity, demonstrate its true value, and manage its perceptions and misconceptions. Words do lead to actions. Spending the time to capture what Drupal is for could energize and empower people to make better decisions when adopting, building and marketing Drupal.

Truth be told, I've been reluctant to define what Drupal is for, as it requires making trade-offs. I have feared that we would make the wrong choice or limit our growth. Over the years, it has become clear that not defining what Drupal is used for leaves more people confused even within our own community.

For example, because Drupal evolved from a simple tool for hobbyists to a more powerful digital experience platform, many people believe that Drupal is now "for the enterprise". While I agree that Drupal is a great fit for the enterprise, I personally never loved that categorization. It's not just large organizations that use Drupal. Individuals, small startups, universities, museums and non-profits can be equally ambitious in what they'd like to accomplish and Drupal can be an incredibly solution for them.

Defining what Drupal is for

Rather than using "for the enterprise", I thought "for ambitious digital experiences" was a good phrase to describe what people can build using Drupal. I say "digital experiences" because I don't want to confine this definition to traditional browser-based websites. As I've stated in my Drupalcon New Orleans keynote, Drupal is used to power mobile applications, digital kiosks, conversational user experiences, and more. Today I really wanted to focus on the word "ambitious".

"Ambitious" is a good word because it aligns with the flexibility, scalability, speed and creative freedom that Drupal provides. Drupal projects may be ambitious because of the sheer scale (e.g. The Weather Channel), their security requirements (e.g. The White House), the number of sites (e.g. Johnson & Johnson manages thousands of Drupal sites), or specialized requirements of the project (e.g. the New York MTA powering digital kiosks with Drupal). Organizations are turning to Drupal because it gives them greater flexibility, better usability, deeper integrations, and faster innovation. Not all Drupal projects need these features on day one -- or needs to know about them -- but it is good to have them in case you need them later on.

"Ambitious" also aligns with our community's culture. Our industry is in constant change (responsive design, web services, social media, IoT), and we never look away. Drupal 8 was a very ambitious release; a reboot that took one-third of Drupal's lifespan to complete, but maneuvered Drupal to the right place for the future that is now coming. I have always believed that the Drupal community is ambitious, and believe that attitude remains strong in our community.

Last but not least, our adopters are also ambitious. They are using Drupal to transform their organizations digitally, leaving established business models and old business processes in the dust.

I like the position that Drupal is ambitious. Stating that Drupal is for ambitious digital experiences however is only a start. It only gives a taste of Drupal's objectives, scope, target audience and advantages. I think we'd benefit from being much more clear. I'm curious to know how you feel about the term "for ambitious digital experiences" versus "for the enterprise" versus not specifying anything. Let me know in the comments so we can figure out how to collectively change the perception of Drupal.

PS: I'm borrowing the term "ambitious" from the Ember.js community. They use the term in their tagline and slogan on their main page.

Microsoft buys LinkedIn: the value of data

In my latest SXSW talk, I showed a graphic of each of the major technology giants to demonstrate how much of our user data each company owned.

Microsoft linkedin data

I said they won't stop until they know everything about us. Microsoft just bought LinkedIn, so here is what happened:


Data ownership

By acquiring the world's largest professional social network, Microsoft gets immediate access to data from more than 433 million LinkedIn members. Microsoft fills out the "social graph" and "interests" circles. There is speculation over what Microsoft will do with LinkedIn over time, but here is what I think is most likely:

  • With LinkedIn, Microsoft could build out its Microsoft Dynamics CRM business to reinvent the sales and marketing process, helping the company compete more directly with SalesForce.
  • LinkedIn could allow Microsoft to implement a "Log in with LinkedIn" system similar to Facebook Connect. Microsoft could turn LinkedIn profiles into a cross-platform business identity to better compete with Google and Facebook.
  • LinkedIn could allow Microsoft to build out Cortana, a workplace-tailored digital assistant. One scenario Microsoft referenced was walking into a meeting and getting a snapshot of each attendee based on his or her LinkedIn profile. This capability will allow Microsoft to better compete against virtual assistants like Google Now, Apple Siri and Amazon Echo.
  • LinkedIn could be integrated in applications like Outlook, Skype, Office, and even Windows itself. Buying LinkedIn helps Microsoft limit how Facebook and Google are starting to get into business applications.

Data is eating the world

In the past I wrote that data, not software, is eating the world. The real value in technology comes less and less from software and more and more from data. As most businesses are moving applications into the cloud, a lot of software is becoming free, IT infrastructure is becoming a metered utility, and data is what is really makes or breaks business results. Here is one excerpt from my post: "As value shifts from software to the ability to leverage data, companies will have to rethink their businesses. In the next decade, data-driven, personalized experiences will continue to accelerate, and development efforts will shift towards using contextual data.". This statement is certainly true in Microsoft / LinkedIn's case.

Microsoft linkedin graphs
Source: Microsoft.

If this deal shows us anything, it's about the value of user data. Microsoft paid more than $60 per registered LinkedIn user. The $26.2 billion price tag values LinkedIn at about 91 times earnings, and about 7 percent of Microsoft's market cap. This is a very bold acquisition. You could argue that this is too hefty a price tag for LinkedIn, but this deal is symbolic of Microsoft rethinking its business strategy to be more data and context-centric. Microsoft sees that the future for them is about data and I don't disagree with that. While I believe acquiring LinkedIn is a right strategic move for Microsoft, I'm torn over whether or not Microsoft overpaid for LinkedIn. Maybe we'll look back on this acquisition five years from now and find that it wasn't so crazy, after all.

Demandware acquisition heats up the customer experience market

The battle for the marketing cloud just got way more interesting. This week, Salesforce announced its acquisition of Demandware for $2.8B in cash. It will enable Salesforce to offer a "Commerce Cloud" alongside its sales and marketing solutions.

The large platform companies like Oracle and Adobe are trying to own the digital customer experience market from top to bottom by acquiring and integrating together tools for marketing, commerce, customer support, analytics, mobile apps, and more. Oracle's acquisition of Eloqua, SAP's acquisition of hybris and Salesforce's acquisitions of ExactTarget were earlier indicators of market players consolidating SaaS apps for customer experience onto their platforms.

In my view, the Demandware acquisition is an interesting strategic move for Salesforce that aligns them more closely as a competitor to marketing stack mega-vendors such as Adobe, Oracle and IBM. Adding a commerce solution to its suite, makes it easier for Salesforce's customers to build an integrated experience and see what their customers are buying. There are advantages to integrated solutions that have a single system of record about the customer. The Demandware acquisition also makes sense from a technology point of view; there just aren't many Java-based commerce platforms that are purely SaaS-based, that can operate at scale, and that are for sale.

However, we've also seen this movie before. When big companies acquire smaller, innovative companies, over time the innovation goes away in favor of integration. Big companies can't innovate fast enough, and the suite lock-in only benefits the vendor.

There is a really strong case to be made for a best-of-breed approach where you choose and integrate the best software from different vendors. This is a market that literally changes too much and too fast for any organization to buy into a single mega-platform. From my experience talking to hundreds of customer organizations, most prefer an open platform that integrates different solutions and acts as an orchestration hub. An open platform ultimately presents more freedom for customers to build the exact experiences they want. Open Source solutions, like Drupal, that have thousands of integrations, allow organizations to build these experiences in less time, with a lower overall total cost of ownership, more flexibility and faster innovation.

Adobe clearly missed out on buying Demandware, after it missed out on buying Hybris years ago. Demandware would have fit in Adobe's strategy and technology stack. Now Adobe might be the only mega-platform that doesn't have an embedded commerce capability. More interestingly, there don't appear to be large independent commerce operators left to buy.

I continue to believe there is a great opportunity for new independent commerce platforms, especially now Salesforce and Demandware will spend the next year or two figuring out the inevitable challenges of integrating their complex software solutions. I'd love to see more commerce platforms emerge, especially those with a modern micro-services based architecture, and an Open Source license and innovation model.

Video: Can we save the open web?

In March, I did a presentation at SxSW that asked the audience a question I've been thinking about a lot lately: "Can we save the open web?".

The web is centralizing around a handful of large companies that control what we see, limit creative freedom, and capture a lot of information about us. I worry that we risk losing the serendipity, creativity and decentralization that made the open web great.


The open web closing

While there are no easy answers to this question, the presentation started a good discussion about the future of the open web, the role of algorithms in society, and how we might be able to take back control of our personal information.

I'm going to use my blog to continue the conversation about the open web, since it impacts the future of Drupal. I'm including the video and slides (PDF, 76 MB) of my SxSW presentation below, as well as an overview of what I discussed.

Here are the key ideas I discussed in my presentation, along with a few questions to discuss in the comments.

Idea 1: An FDA-like organization to provide oversight for algorithms. While an "FDA" in and of itself may not be the most ideal solution, algorithms are nearly everywhere in society and are beginning to impact life-or-death decisions. I gave the example of an algorithm for a self-driving car having to decide whether to save the driver or hit a pedestrian crossing the street. There are many other life-or-death examples of how unregulated technology could impact people in the future, and I believe this is an issue we need to begin thinking about now. What do you suggest we do to make the use of algorithms fair and trustworthy?

Idea 2: Open standards that will allow for information-sharing across sites and applications. Closed platforms like Facebook and Google are winning because they're able to deliver a superior user experience driven by massive amounts of data and compute power. For the vast majority of people, ease-of-use will trump most concerns around privacy and control. I believe we need to create a set of open standards that enable drastically better information-sharing and integration between websites and applications so independent websites can offer user experiences that meet or exceeds that of the large platforms. How can the Drupal community help solve this problem?

Idea 3: A personal information broker that allows people more control over their data. In the past, I've written about the idea for a personal information broker that will give people control over how, where and for how long their data is used, across every single interaction on the web. This is no small feat. An audience member asked an interesting question about who will build this personal information broker -- whether it will be a private company, a government, an NGO, or a non-profit organization? I'm not really sure I have the answer, but I am optimistic that we can figure that out. I wish I had the resources to build this myself as I believe this will be a critical building block for the web. What do you think is the best way forward?

Ultimately, we should be building the web that we want to use, and that we want our children to be using for decades to come. It's time to start to rethink the foundations, before it's too late. If we can move any of these ideas forward in a meaningful way, they will impact billions of people, and billions more in the future.

Can we save the open web?

The web felt very different fifteen years ago, when I founded Drupal. Just 7 percent of the population had internet access, there were only around 20 million websites, and Google was a small, private company. Facebook, Twitter, and other household tech names were years away from being founded. In these early days, the web felt like a free space that belonged to everyone. No one company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. This is what I call the "open web".

But the internet has changed drastically over the last decade. It's become a more closed web. Rather than a decentralized and open landscape, many people today primarily interact with a handful of large platform companies online, such as Google or Facebook. To many users, Facebook and Google aren't part of the internet -- they are the internet.

I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open web. While the closed web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences. And, as people generate data from more and more devices and interactions, this lack of control could get very personal, very quickly, without anyone's consent. So I've thought through a few potential ideas to bring back the good things about the open web. These ideas are by no means comprehensive; I believe we need to try a variety of approaches before we find one that really works.

Double-edged sword

It's undeniable that companies like Google and Facebook have made the web much easier to use and helped bring billions online. They've provided a forum for people to connect and share information, and they've had a huge impact on human rights and civil liberties. These are many things for which we should applaud them.

But their scale is also concerning. For example, Chinese messaging service Wechat (which is somewhat like Twitter) recently used its popularity to limit market choice. The company banned access to Uber to drive more business to their own ride-hailing service. Meanwhile, Facebook engineered limited web access in developing economies with its Free Basics service. Touted in India and other emerging markets as a solution to help underserved citizens come online, Free Basics allows viewers access to only a handful of pre-approved websites (including, of course, Facebook). India recently banned Free Basics and similar services, claiming that these restricted web offerings violated the essential rules of net neutrality.

Algorithmic oversight

Beyond market control, the algorithms powering these platforms can wade into murky waters. According to a recent study from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, information displayed in Google could shift voting preferences for undecided voters by 20 percent or more -- all without their knowledge. Considering how narrow the results of many elections can become, this margin is significant. In many ways, Google controls what information people see, and any bias, intentional or not, has a potential impact on society.

In the future, data and algorithms will power even more grave decisions. For example, code will decide whether a self-driving car stops for an oncoming bus or runs into pedestrians.

It's possible that we're reaching the point where we need oversight for consumer-facing algorithms. Perhaps it's time to consider creating an oversight committee. Similar to how the FDA monitors the quality and safety of food and drugs, this regulatory body could audit algorithms. Recently, I spoke at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, where attendees also suggested a global "Consumer Reports" style organization that would "review" the results of different company's algorithms, giving consumers more choice and transparency.

Gaining control of our personal data

But algorithmic oversight is not enough. In numbers by the billions, people are using free and convenient services, often without a clear understanding of how and where their data is being used. Many times, this data is shared and exchanged between services, to the point where people don't know what's safe anymore. It's an unfair trade-off.

I believe that consumers should have some level of control over how their data is shared with external sites and services; in fact, they should be able to opt into nearly everything they share if they want to. If a consumer wants to share her shoe size and color preferences with every shopping website, her experience with the web could become more personal, with her consent. Imagine a way to manage how our information is used across the entire web, not just within a single platform. That sort of power in the hands of the people could help the open web gain an edge on the hyper-personalized, easy-to-use "closed" web.

In order for a consumer-based, opt-in data sharing system described above to work, the entire web needs to unite around a series of common standards. This idea in and of itself is daunting, but some information-sharing standards like OAuth have shown us that it can be done. People want the web to be convenient and easy-to-use. Website creators want to be discovered. We need to find a way to match user preferences and desires with information throughout the open web. I believe that collaboration and open standards could be a great way to decentralize power and control on the web.

Why does this matter?

The web will only expand into more aspects of our lives. It will continue to change every industry, every company, and every life on the planet. The web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come. It's crucial we get this right. Do we want the experiences of the next billion web users to be defined by open values of transparency and choice, or the siloed and opaque convenience of the walled garden giants dominating today?

I believe we can achieve a balance between companies' ability to grow, profit and innovate, while still championing consumer privacy, freedom and choice. Thinking critically and acting now will ensure the web's open future for everyone.

(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for The Daily Dot. I also gave a talk yesterday at SXSW on a similar topic, and will share the slides along with a recording of my talk when it becomes available in a couple of weeks.)

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