What can the WordPress community learn from the State of Drupal?

This week, the Drupal community gathered in Austin for DrupalCon 2014, including the annual “State of Drupal” address from Dries Buytaert. It’s the first North American Drupalcon I’ve missed since Boston in 2008, though thankfully all the presentations at DrupalCon are recorded and made available online. Embedded below are the video and slides for Dries’ State of Drupal address. While I know most folks in the Drupal community will have already watched it, I’d suggest there’s good value in watching it from the perspective of the WordPress community as well.



What can the WordPress community learn from the talk?

Dries’ general perspective is clear and well articulated:

  • Experience is the key. While it isn’t always clear from the experience of using Drupal (sorry, couldn’t resist), Dries and the core team have long focused on improving the usability of Drupal for content authors and site managers. Using the evolution of the “photographic apparatus” as an example, Dries traces how each stage in the evolution simplified steps to the point of removing them from consideration. Like design, technology is at its best when it is invisible, improving the users’ capabilities without adding complexity to the experience.
  • Technology innovations enable experience. As the process of taking, storing, and sharing photos got simpler for the end user, it actually got more complex on the “back end.” Compare the basic chemical processes of early photography with the hardware and software behind a modern camera phone: the experience for the end user gets more simple while the technologies assembled to create that experience get more complex.
  • We’re heading from the assembled web into the experience web. Open source components and an assembly methodology have dramatically improved the capabilities of developers, enabling us to bring together many existing, functional components into a larger experience. The experience web leverages semantic markup and multiple devices to bring sophisticated capabilities to users while at the same time simplifying their experience.
  • The open web is closing up. Dries argues that as the big players get bigger, it gets harder and harder to compete as an independent site. The challenge is these experiences can often be better for the consumer in terms of convenience and ease of use, but they ultimately represent a re-intermediation, inserting the search engine or social platform in between you and the content (brands, products, people) with which you want to interact.

Dries’ focus, of course, is on what the role of Drupal will be in driving forward the “Experience Web”: providing multi-channel semantic markup in multiple formats to provide next-generation search and e-commerce experiences. (The second 30 minutes of the talk is more focused in on changes to the core architecture in Drupal 8).

What does this mean for WordPress?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, but here’s a few I’d start with:

  • WordPress is even more well positioned to create an ideal authoring experience, letting users easily create complex structured content – and to expose that content in multiple formats and multiple contexts. While the majority of users of the platform may be only looking for a web site that renders pages and posts as html, the combination of custom post types, custom taxonomies, and custom metadata (along with plugins like the JSON-REST API) enables WordPress to power the same kind of rich, extended, experience web style applications Dries describes for Drupal.
  • The WordPress community can’t rest on its laurels with respect to ease of use. Check slide 162, where Dries claims “effortless authoring” as one of the features of D8 (specifically calling out in-place editing, responsive back-end, and a redesigned content creation page). WordPress has to continue to evolve what ease of use means, fighting hard to maintain the core simplicity (“smart defaults over choices” and so on) while adding the power of complex content types, taxonomy metadata, incorporating the JSON-REST API, and so on.
  • Drupal has made a deliberate shift from a “not invented here” attitude to a “proudly found elsewhere” attitude, incorporating significant elements of the Symfony framework as well as Twig as a templating language. While I don’t believe the WordPress community suffers as much from “not invented here” as Drupal did historically, I would love to see continued focus on what we can learn from other communities. In some cases that will mean actually being able to leverage code from other communities, in other cases it will mean adapting patterns and approaches, but modifying them to be appropriate to the culture and user experience of WordPress.
  • Drupal’s “epochal” release strategy – where 8.0 is a fundamentally different release than any 7.x, which is a fundamentally different experience than 6.x, and so on, has its advantages and disadvantages. The major disadvantage is that those primary releases take multiple years to arrive, and require hugely substantial rewrites of core functionality, contributed modules, and even sites built on the platform. (It’s not uncommon, in my experience, for people to spend the better part of a year on a major version upgrade of their site on Drupal). The advantage is a chance to tell the story of progress, to very visibly remove legacy experiences and code, and to claim the arrival of a new era. I often talk to people who say “I used WordPress once; it’s too simple for my needs,” only to discover the last time they looked at WordPress was in 2.5 or 2.7 (which is to say, pre-multisite merge, pre-custom post types, and so on). There’s no epoch to measure, to say WordPress 3.x is fundamentally a different platform then 2.x, or WordPress 4.x will be the culmination of 3+ years work by the community to rewrite the platform from the ground up. I’m not suggesting we should shift to this model – incremental change is less disruptive to the site builder and the end user, not to mention to plugin and theme developers or those building products on top of the platform – but incremental change can be more difficult to notice/sense. We need to do a better job articulating the changes that have come and the power the platform has (and will continue to have) while not losing the simplicity and elegance of the user experience.
  • Drupal’s going after the enterprise in a major way. Large brands, complex IT infrastructures, and large teams of developers line up well to large scale Drupal development. Acquia’s sales team is part of this effort, but I don’t think it is a case of Acquia running in a direction other than that of the community – I think Acquia is working with the community as it heads that direction. Of course there are those in the community who don’t welcome these changes – see Backdrop for one visible example – but the Drupal community on the whole is making a deliberate and sustained effort to become “the enterprise platform.” I don’t ever want to see WordPress lose our focus on the end user, but I think we definitely can do a better job telling the story of the enterprise WordPress user. (WordPress.com VIP and the Big Media and Enterprise WordPress meetups are the start of this process, but not the end).
  • WordPress can help retain the Open Web. I was disheartened to hear Dries say basically we can’t stop the open web from closing. I don’t disagree with him about the increasing dominance of a few key players in our daily lives online, but I think the antidote to that is the continued presence of many smaller players, enabled by technologies like WordPress. The IndieWebCamp movement, BarCamp, and WordCamp all suggest to me a strong and vibrant future for the truly open web. WordPress’ core mission, to democratize publishing, can and should continue to be a strong antidote to the evolving closed, monolithic, corporate web.

Of course there’s also the requisite “WordPress can’t come close to doing this” and “it’s miles and miles away from doing this” at 37:20 into the talk. It isn’t really clear what it is Dries is saying WordPress can’t do – output semantic marked up content? Provide a REST api? Enable complex content types? Serve as a headless content repository to be consumed by other frameworks? I don’t see anything in his description that can’t be done with WordPress, albeit with leverage of plugins and custom code. (Largely this is due to WordPress staying true to a “small core” approach, keeping more of the needs of smaller portions of the audience in the plugin space rather than moving them all into core).

What’s your take?

What does the direction of Drupal as laid out by the project’s founder and lead suggest about the future for WordPress?

How can we continue to take on the use cases and needs of large teams of developers and enterprises, without making it too difficult for smaller companies to leverage the platform, and while preserving the image of WordPress as an attractive platform for independent developers to learn?


  1. Great analysis! Very interesting to see the take from “the other side of the pond.” :)

    Regarding what Dries said about WordPress, my recollection (I guess I should re-watch the video again) is that he said no other platform allows you to do the whole package of easily authorable, structured content with semantic, machine-readable markup baked in, pushed out to multiple data sources (including running as “headless” and with a totally custom Angular JS or whatever front end) as *seamless* as Drupal 8. You can do all of this stuff in Drupal 7 as well (and WordPress, and $proprietary_cms too), but it takes some wrangling… Downloading X plugins, spending Y hours configuring them, maybe with Z lines of custom glue code, etc.

    Drupal 8 certainly isn’t perfect in the “seamless” regard, but gets much further down the path. And rest assured that within Drupal’s leadership, we greatly look up to the kind of seamless authoring experience WordPress provides for publishers and are always striving to do better while keeping our “by developers, for developers” roots (which can sometimes be challenging :)).

    Thanks so much for the post! It’s going to take all of us in the open source space working together to keep the open web open, so the more we can find ways to collaborate and make each of our respective projects stronger, the better. :)

  2. One thing I think you oversimplified in your analysis was the section on the open web. In that section Dries does not state that we cannot stop the death of the open web or anything like that, but simply that—like the big box stores—large players are increasingly crowding the space.

    He carries this metaphor further by showing how—again just like the big boxes—experience aggregators like Google and Facebook will never be able to deliver unique, rich experiences simply because of the volume of information.

    Both in retail and the web, users will always seek things that are authentic, natural, local, or simply exceptional. The explosion of the maker movement shows this clearly. I don’t personally believe we will ever lose exceptional web experiences delivered by individuals or small organizations and I don’t think that was what Dries implied.

  3. Thanks for commenting Angie. I guess what I was reacting to was seeing a bit of the kind of insularity I’ve seen in many different communities (Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, Sitecore, Adobe CQ, Alfresco, etc) where people start to say (and believe!) “ours is the only platform that can do X.”

    I realize that’s not your approach (or even Dries’ typically) but look at what he says in that section of the talk (around 37:30):

    “There’s really no other system in the world that does this, or that does this so effortlessly. . . . There’s really nothing else. And people complain about how WordPress is easier to use, again maybe its easier to use, but it doesn’t even come close to doing these kinds of things, it doesn’t come close, its like miles and miles away from this.”

    While you’re right that a lot hinges on what exactly “this” is, or what “these kinds of things” means – I guess it just came across to me as a bit of Drupal-centric hubris (understandable perhaps in the context of a State of Drupal address at Drupalcon) to suggest that these features are available nowhere else.

    To be fair, I see the same kind of platform-centricity sometimes in the WordPress world – as well as in other CMS communities I’ve been part of. I wasn’t trying to be critical of Dries or the Drupal community so much as point out we all can learn from each other – my ears perk up every time I hear anyone say “our platform is the only one that lets you ___.”

    While I spend more of my time now (since joining 10up) in the WordPress world, I’ve also long been part of the Drupal community – so take this less as a view from “the other side of the pond” and more as the view from someone who visits lots of ponds. ;)

  4. Hi Kevin – thanks for commenting. I get that I’m likely oversimplifying (making an hour long presentation into a short blog post) but he does say at 21:12

    The open web as we know it is closing up . . . the big players are taking over more and more of the front-end of the web, and Drupal sites risk being sort of the the deep web, if you will, for lack of a better word. And the sad part, in a way, is we won’t be able to stop it. I thought really really hard about this – I couldn’t think of a way to stop this. . . it’s actually easier for the users, . . . it’s actually better for the businesses as well. . . . It’s better for users, it’s better for businesses. So how would we be able to stop this?

    Agreed, maybe I’m allowing his use of the term “open web” to be more generic than he really means – he’s not suggesting that the web experiences created by individuals or small organizations will disappear, but he does to me seem to imply that – to a significant degree – they will need to be discoverable/findable through those experience aggregators to have a meaningful impact. So called “mom & pop” stores haven’t disappeared in the big box era, but they certainly have gone through some tough times.

    Maybe what I’m really reacting to (which perhaps says more about me than about what Dries intends to communicate) is his recognition of the primacy of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple et al in terms of most people’s experience of the web, and his use of large brands like Lady Gaga and Whole Foods as the examples. Yes, we can make content semantic and discoverable, and push “branded experiences” through the portholes Google and Facebook make available to us, but it felt like there was a missing additional alternative history. (Not sure precisely what that would be, honestly, but it would be less focused on big brands, and more focused on people who have succeeded by ignoring the large aggregators or questioning their value).

    He does conclude with the notion that D8 we enable us to “Embrace the big players” AND “focus on experiences” – which is to say we can build independent experiences of our own, not just push content through other people’s experiences.

    So let’s built some great experiences outside the big boxes, on Drupal and WordPress!

  5. I’m fighting the urge to write a slightly less diplomatic post on my own blog, unpicking some of the disparaging assertions about what is or isn’t possible with WordPress; and highlighting the unreasonable apples-vs-oranges comparisons between Drupal’s expanding core, and WordPress’s continuing lean-and-mean approach.

    Leaving those aside, there’s enough in here to leave you feeling slightly on edge as a WordPress specialist… until the point (45:50) when he admits it won’t actually be released until early or middle of 2015. To put it another way, that’s several full WordPress release cycles.

    I won’t be losing any sleep tonight after all.

  6. Part of the ‘apples and oranges’ problem is down to the backgrounds of the two – one focused very much on the user, the other on the developer (to simplify a little).

    That’s why (I think) Drupal is – at the moment – better positioned for the enterprise than WordPress. It also doesn’t have to focus so much on the end user experience because it hands power of the end user experience entirely over to the developer by making far less of a distinction between front- and back-end.

    By contrast, WordPress has come very much from the “famous 5-minute install” end of the spectrum, enabling beautiful sites with easy in very little time for end users. It’s now growing up and trying to meet the needs of the enterprise without loosing that ease of use.

    Having worked with Drupal (since v6) and being a WordPress fanatic, there are tons of things I’d love WordPress to learn from Drupal (and vice versa) but it’s hard to do that without adversely affecting the end user experience.

    One note on the JSON REST API – I love that it’s heading for core, but this is the kind of thing Drupal has been able to do since v6. Regurgitating the same content, the same fields, in multiple formats is really straightforward (NO coding required, even) and I think this is kinda what Dries was getting to when he talked about the improvements in 8. Drupal 8 sounds much more like a system for presentation and *consumption* of web content through different means – web, mobile apps, kiosks, desktop software, internal contact centre systems etc. I’m reminded of SharePoint (I saw the most recent version in action recently and asked lots of questions) and it’s integration capabilities, out of the box, which is enterprise-level stuff and I think WordPress probably needs some of this handled in core.

  7. I have been working for several years implementing several enterprice sites in Drupal, and WordPress as well. Since the 4.7 Drupal version and WordPress 2.x.

    The there are several differences I will point out just a few:

    User experience
    Drupal needs to get better on the UX, very poor on that department. In the admin interface and in the user interface.

    WordPress is super cool no issues. Very well organized the functionality. To publish is is very nice.

    Drupal complexity of the code, not really easy to understand even if the developer is a good one in PHP. Getting worse in Drupal 8. I think that so far that would be the best code ever. And the addition to entities in Drupal 7 was really a very good example of extending a system to do anything, really flexible.

    Almost any developer with little experience would be able to undestand and read through WordPress code. That is key for the developers of all levels to engage into the development of WordPress.

    Although theming is could be very complex in Drupal, it is very powerful and addresses the most complex implementations. Theming in WordPress is a walk in the park, I mean very nice.

    The modules from Drupal are without any doubt the power under the hood, the community is great and collaborative, share what they know. Very nice. Although many configurations are needed to create a complex web app still the power comes from modules.

    The plugin system from WordPress works like a charm. Nice and easy all the way. Really enjoy doing sites with WordPress.

    So really the question should not be what WordPress communities could be learn from Drupal but the way around.

    Drupal community really needs to learn a little bit more how to do the things like in WordPress.

    They have more sites that drupal all over the world, but the main reason for that is simplicity and power.


    Building and Deployment
    I adore open source software and I have learn my ways in the Drupal world. I love it because is challenguing every single implementation I learn so much.

    The same as well with WordPress but without the pain. Seems that Iike the pain and I like Drupal.

    Final Thouths
    Drupal is not perfect, It needs a lot of love still. Even Drupal 8 as Dries is selling it like the best thing under the sun, will need a couple of years to get full speed on things.

    We will be working together to make this project even better.

    There are many exiting things to come in the future, that is for sure.

  8. I think we definitely can do a better job telling the story of the enterprise WordPress user.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this if you have any suggestions. At VIP we’re constantly trying to find new ways to bring attention to WP & enterprise – there has to be a lot we haven’t thought about. (Feel free to email me directly if you’d like, too!)

  9. German – my point wasn’t to suggest that learning should only flow in one direction, but that both projects can learn from each other (and from other projects both open source and proprietary).

    The day we start thinking no one outside the community has valuable insight into how to solve similar problems is the day we start decaying as a project (this is true for either community!).

  10. Thanks Sara. The Big Media & Enterprise WordPress meetups have been wonderful – there is one tomorrow night in Boston, but (as you know) there are many WordPress.com VIP events in other cities. I regularly send people to those videos to see what advanced publishers are doing on the platform.

    Many WordCamps (including WordCamp Boston, coming up August 23rd-24th 2014 feature talks on “enterprise” use cases as well. I guess what I was reflecting on is just the dominance of that message in the Drupal space – it seems more and more to be the center of their market, or at least their most visible target, where in the WordPress space broadly the message to enterprises can get lost in the broader mission WordPress rightly has.

Comments are closed.