Drupal is a Burning Platform?

Submitted by dryer on Tue, 04/11/2017 - 03:42
Drupal on fire

Some six years ago a company CEO wrote this infamous email to his employees:

There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform's edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters.

As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters in to the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a "burning platform," and he needed to make a choice.

He decided to jump. It was unexpected. In ordinary circumstances, the man would never consider plunging into icy waters. But these were not ordinary times - his platform was on fire. The man survived the fall and the waters. After he was rescued, he noted that a "burning platform" caused a radical change in his behaviour.

We too, are standing on a "burning platform," and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.

This company was Nokia, the then largest manufacturer of mobile phones. This juggernaut had shaped the telecom industry standards and had been a market leader for many years. Since that memo sent to the staff regarding their outdated technical platform, Symbian, the company has went through some radical times. First adopting Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system, then selling the arm to the US software company all together.  Noteworthy that there are no phones on the market built by that company.

Drupal Community Registration Statistics from 2001 to 2016
Drupal.org registrations from 2001 to 2016 (http://bit.ly/2o2kmJC) 

Back in 2011 Drupal 7 was just released and the Drupal community was gaining force rapidly. But during the last year or so, the story about the burning platform rings to the ear of Drupalers. Since the launch of Drupal 8 there has been some stagnation in the market in regards to the new version taking of, but most importantly there has been too much chatter about things not related to the project. This is a typical focus for a company/product that is past it's prime.

With members such as Karoly Négesi (chx) and Larry Garfield (Crell) ousted from the community, the official emails from the Drupal leadership increasingly sound like reassuring communication from the well paid leader of the enterprise. There is a lot at stake here with the investment of time and money from companies and individuals, but it seems like the Nokia leadership in it's time have acted too late to take radical action - instead yielding to conservative values to protect it's position. This isn't helped by murky relations between Acquia and Drupal.

While the Drupal.org community growth has been slowing and Drupal growth being flat, It has been noted that the Drupal project itself has slowly been aligning itself for bigger things, in the spirit of continued growth. This has come at a compromise to the old values, which have not gone unnoticed:

However, interesting times bring excitement, but also tension and stress. You can sense those feelings in the Drupal community right now, for these reasons and more:

  • Drupal 8 adoption has been noticeably slower than with other versions.
  • Dries changed a fundamental Drupal principle and promised that all future upgrades would be smooth.
  • Drupal seems to be changing it's audience towards enterprise users, with a heavier reliance on developer tools such as Composer.
  • The Drupal Association has been struggling with financial problems and leadership changes.
  • Ambitious ideas, such as experimental modules in the core, haven't yet worked out as well as hoped.
  • Some big Drupal agencies have struggled to maintain their rapid growth, and some have shrunk or left the market.

It seems that riven by a long hegemony of continued growth, Drupal has failed to renew itself. Drupal 8 is a major rewrite of the technical platform, but failed to deliver on any user experience improvements. Now this sounds very similar to what Nokia did with the Symbian platform, which didn't end well for Symbian. Drupal 8 is also criticised for complexity and being late-to-the-market, due to the overly long development process.

In order to take a radical change, Nokia adopted Windows Phone as their choice of Operating Systems. Similarly to this, the Drupal leadership has noticed how Drupal is failing to deliver on eCommerce and is embracing the (aging) market leader Magento through a partnership instead. Two turkey's don't make an eagle?

Drupal's architecture is sunset technology

Perhaps one of the reasons for Drupal's decline is the position of the market leader, but underneath is a bigger change that Drupal may simply be unable to respond to. The modern smartphone industry was essentially created a decade ago by Apple. Symbian was the dominant platform before, but simply could not deliver the experience due to technical constraints. Of course there could have been a complete rewrite, but with so much baggage it cannot be done. Same goes for Drupal with it's 15+ year legacy in concepts and a heavily PHP focused community.

For Drupal that market is Content Management Systems. For the longest time CMSes were selected largely on the features they could provide. With Drupal's large selection of modules it almost always came out on top, not because it was necessary the best choice - but a decent compromise. This sounds a lot like what Symbian smartphone was, a feature packed phone with decent battery life but a pretty horrid user experience (in hindsight).

The iPhone for the Drupal market are microservices. Instead of building a single monolith with all the bells and whistles, more and more companies and organizations are composing their content management solutions from smaller parts, where sometimes a simple Content API is enough. There is room for Drupal in microservices, but it will no longer be the dominant entity in this kind of architectures. Drupal has not lost it's unique technical edge, but that edge is just not as relevant. 

With Drupal continuously investing in in-site editing and other highly consolidated features it feels a bit outdated already. Since Drupal 7 JavaScript has actually become the leading force for contemporary web development, yet Drupal has not chosen a clear path here. There are some initiatives like the Drupal Waterwheel initiative, but these are adopted by only a handful of people. Same goes for the aspirations of Drupal as a desktop application platform.

Add to all of this PHP is increasingly not the first language that new web developers pick up. Instead JavaScript has become the dominant new language, and this is an area where Drupal is playing catch-up at best with it's aged front end architecture. And with the track record in renewing the user experience, we're not holding our breaths.

Nowadays Drupal is seen by many as the Sharepoint of the JavaScript generation - a tool they don't want to use, but one that is pushed to them by the enterprise. Drupal is no longer the enthusiast's choice, and this means the start of a long and slow decline.