At last week’s DrupalCon in Nashville, I found a community wrestling with ideas of resilience. Seventeen years into a project that has been the inspiration and model for several other open source initiatives, there is a sense that community enthusiasm alone won’t power the continued success of the platform.

BSD enthusiastically recommends Drupal 8 as a future-proof platform to clients who want to take advantage of its flexible content model, powerful workflow tools, and extensive plugin ecosystem, or who simply want the flexibility to choose a traditionally themed or decoupled approach at a feature level rather than committing to a single platform-wide architecture. Drupal 8’s strong support for both traditional templating and API-driven decoupled front-ends makes it an ideal choice for those looking to the future but inclined to take a measured approach to replatforming.

At the same time, with strong competitors at all levels of the market — Adobe, Sitecore and WordPress for enterprise, WordPress (again) and content-as-a-service platforms in the mid-tier, and SquareSpace, Wix and WordPress (again) for the mass market – Drupal is under pressure to chart a sustainable path in the shifting digital landscape. As part of that, DrupalCon included some frank talk assessing shortcomings in the product experience that pose barriers to adoption.

A noteworthy keynote

In fact, this topic informed the bulk of Dries Buytaert’s opening keynote. While his keynote has historically touted exciting features, this year he noted that the lagging product experience is depressing adoption across different decision-maker personas.

Dries recognized that new features are really only of interest to current users of Drupal and that not enough attention has been paid to those who are evaluating Drupal for the first time. Technical evaluators are also having a tough time with Drupal: The documentation is scattered, and the number of clicks for a base Drupal install is onerous — 41 clicks and more than 15 minutes, compared to just 7 clicks in under 8 minutes for WordPress. For content creators, the admin design needs to be refreshed with current UI conventions; the base install should come preconfigured with demos illustrating Drupal’s capabilities.

Community-elected board members of the Drupal Organization, Shyamala Rajaram and Ryan Szrama, presenting the community values

While the Drupal volunteer community begins to tackle these challenges, Drupal Organization leadership has also decided to start a marketing initiative promoting Drupal to non-technical decision makers. As investment decision-making for digital marketing tools shifts away from IT stakeholders towards marketers, Dries recognized the threat posed by commercial competitors (Adobe in particular) who have been aggressively courting marketers for several years. Until now, Drupal hasn’t felt pressured to make that pitch — in fact, responsibility for marketing Drupal largely has fallen to the agencies and hosting providers.

On that front, there were some sobering conversations at DrupalCon. Price points for agency projects have fallen as development services become increasingly commoditized, and the requirements for many middle-tier projects can be met with the capabilities of WordPress — often at half the cost of a comparable Drupal build. I attended a session where it was flatly stated that agencies should assume that many current Drupal 7 builds will migrate to WordPress rather than Drupal 8, and to keep these customers, Drupal-only shops should build up a WordPress practice or diversify their value proposition with other digital marketing capabilities outside of site builds. Not something you’d normally expect to hear at the annual epicenter of Drupal enthusiasts.

Conscious decoupling

However, many other sessions dove into complex cases with bespoke functionality that Drupal is uniquely positioned to provide — often implemented with decoupled architectures. Decoupling – the practice of separating the content store from the front-end and connecting them via API – is an increasingly common approach to web development. It allows developers more flexibility in how each is built, leading to more streamlined solutions at each tier, and it positions the CMS to support additional content delivery channels like mobile apps and chat interfaces.

The developer community is leading the charge here; sessions focused on decoupled solutions almost doubled compared to DrupalCon 2017. In his 2017 keynote, Dries acknowledged this trend but still mounted a defense for integrated CMS use cases. Fast forward to 2018, and we’re seeing sessions descriptions with lines like “Is not decoupling even an option?”

While Drupal has long supported decoupled architectures, it is no longer a unique differentiator. The advent of content-as-a-service platforms like Contentful, Prismic, and is further disrupting Drupal’s niche, leading to anxious sessions with titles like “Defending Drupal in the headless CMS landscape.”

The future of Drupal

DrupalCon remains a vibrant and inspiring expression of the open source ethos, and a key function of the conference is to reconnect and recharge the sense of collective mission. But paired with the celebration of Drupal, it seemed that the community senses the challenges to the project and is starting to discuss them more directly than the previous year.

For our part at Blue State Digital we have an active Drupal practice, with advocacy and enterprise clients leveraging Drupal’s diverse capabilities. We’re invested, along with our clients, in the long-term vision for Drupal and will continue to participate in the community dialogue to support Drupal’s growth and evolution.

Want to discuss the future of open source development or hear what we can do for you on the technology front? We’d love that — get in touch with us.