A Web Site for Developing Web Sites

Back in January of 1993, Marc Andreessen and his team released the Mosaic web browser. It captured my imagination for several reasons. First, it brought the promise of a platform independent means for sharing information across the internet. It was not only a hypertext system but a hypermedia system.

At that point, the network barely had enough bandwidth to support the transmission of photographs, much less video. But Mosaic didn’t restrict the type or size of content. It was built to allow the browser to be extended to support new media types and protocols as the were developed. That was the inspiration for the name of the program. It was a Mosaic of protocol engines and renderers.

The second feature that captured my imagination was the description of the input mechanisms provided by that early version of HTML. I reasoned that if this browser could be evolved to allow arbitrary input as well as rendering new kinds of output as they were developed, then it was for all intents and purposes a platform independent, Graphical User Interface (GUI).

This came at a time when users were arguing over which operating system would dominate the world of desktop workstations. There were three major contenders. First, there was the Macintosh. Then the PC running Windows. Bringing up the rear was unix and linux both running the Xwindows system.

Here, presenting itself in the guise of an humble hypertext reader, was a potential answer to the tower of Babel situation that we found ourselves in. Realizing that vision has taken the better part of ten or fifteen years.

The technologies that made this possible are Cascading Style Sheets, Javascript, HTML5, the Apache web server, and Node.js. These are not the only technologies that contributed to this web application platform, but they are the most significant ones.

At this point we have the means to make web development easy and platform independent but lack the resolve to implement a web development tool that runs on the cloud and is simple enough to use that mere mortals (and managers) can use it to maintain their information on the web.

There is actually several packages that come close to providing the cloud centric development that I am talking about. The one that has captured my imagination is called XWiki. It allows you to create content interactively by using the same kind of tools that you do to browse a web site.

The place where XWiki falls short at present, is in its lack of an obvious way to import a complex brand identity framework and use it as a template upon which to implement the actual content of the site. It should be possible to import the content from other programs or files, as well as dynamically creating it in the framework.

I’m sure such frameworks exist. They’re just not open source or as simple to use as I would want them to be. I’m still intrigued by XWiki but it has fallen back in my estimation of it’s ability to  be easily extended to support the kind of web site development that I’m trying to foster.

I haven’t really talked much about my vision for this tool. That may be because I am still fleshing it out in my mind. I will give it some thought, take some notes, and make another stab at specifying the tool that I’m dancing around tomorrow.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Things I Learned (TIL)

I’ve learned a lot about web sites and Content Management Systems (CMS) today. Not that I didn’t already know a good bit about them. I just learned that there is an almost infinite number of variations on the whole CMS theme.

For instance, WordPress, the software that I use to publish this blog is a CMS. It is an extremely flexible CMS. Another popular CMS is called Drupal. I have played with Drupal several years ago which means that I  have very little idea how it works in its present incarnation. Both of these packages are primarily intended for use by bloggers.

Another CMS is the XWiki package that I’ve been talking about a good bit of late. It adds the added feature of acting like a Wiki. If I’m not mistaken, WordPress has a wiki plugin but I haven’t investigated it yet. Drupal may have one as well. The difference being, I suppose, that XWiki comes with the Wiki functionality built in as a primary feature.

Dave Winer has written a number of CMSs starting with Frontier and ending up with his latest, 1999.io. They are good products. They are based on his wonderful outliner software. They are fairly minimalistic in their formatting capability out of the box. To get flashy pages you have to be a web developer and understand what he is doing to render the content. That is in no way a criticism. It is how the product works and it is a great product.

What I’m looking for is a flexible framework for building a web site that is maintainable by any number of people, most of which having little or no experience with html, css, or any other web development technology. So far, I have to say, out of the box XWiki is the most capable. It is also the easiest for an honest to goodness web developer to extend in such a way that the content is still maintainable by mere mortals.

Now for the hard part. I have to put together a plan for migrating to XWiki. That includes a schedule. I am not good with schedules. Especially considering that I am dealing with a technology that I’ve only known existed for about a week. The good news is that there is not much to the web site that I am “porting” to XWiki. I’m not sure what the bad news might be. That’s the thing about the unknown. It sneaks up on you and says “Boo!”

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.