Dries Buytaert

Drupal and eliminating middlemen

At my 'State of Drupal' presentation at the Open Source CMS Summit at Yahoo! last month, I talked about the fact that there is a simple and well-known recipe for success: using the internet to eliminate middlemen.

Amazon eliminates book shops, iTunes eliminates music stores, news websites eliminate traditional broadcast media, eBay eliminates flea markets, travel websites eliminate travel agencies, real estate websites eliminate real estate agents, online photo print services eliminate photo shops, and so on.

Of course, the reality isn't as cut and dried as I make it out to be. Book shops, music stores, newspapers, flea markets, etc. are obviously here to stay. They will, however, have to co-exist with their online counterparts and that certainly adds pressure.

Either way, we can't dismiss the fact that there is a clear trend: any business that disintermediates traditional middlemen by taking advantage of the internet has a good chance of being successful. Products or online services that eliminate middlemen can be incredibly successful. It's a recipe for success.

With that in mind, what can Drupal eliminate?

Frankly, we already eliminated the webmaster. When was the last time you had to hire a webmaster to hand-craft your website and content using XHTML and CSS? Nowadays content creators can input, format and publish their own content themselves. The webmaster role that we used to know is dead. Publishing tools and content management systems, like Drupal, replaced them. Killed by technology, replaced by scripts.

But let's think ahead. Whom will Drupal eliminate in the future? Are Drupal's custom content types and views popular because they eliminate the developer? I think the answer is 'yes'. Mashups and web services are also an example of this trend. Modern content management systems are well on their way to eliminating the developer. End-user programming (EOP) empowers individuals, both professionals and amateurs, to take control of the framework and the tools.

If we can eliminate the webmaster and the developer, the next question is: can we eliminate the designer? A lot of people will be inclined to say we can't. Others will say it is too hard. And, while it might be difficult, there's still a lot of specific tasks we can eliminate. Just as we'll always need webmasters and developers to accomplish certain tasks, we'll never be able to totally eliminate the role of the designer. How many of the designers tasks can be killed by technology, replaced by a script?

The color picker in Drupal 5 is a great first step at eliminating the designer. All of a sudden, changing your site's color scheme becomes easy and accessible for non-designers. We can take this further. We can build selectors that let us choose between different structural layouts, different header formats, etc. There are a lot of things we can do, and that might satisfy the design needs of many end users.

To all the naysayers: remember that the first steam engines were known to blow up. Over time, we managed to perfect the technology and build an entire economy on top of it. They enabled mass transport by boats and trains.

Similarly, I think there is great value in perfecting technologies that set out to eliminate the webmaster, the developer, and the designer. This is what Drupal is all about. Just like the steam engine helped people get from point A to point B fast and effortlessly, we're making it easy for everyone to build powerful websites. Help your users move up the Drupal learning curve as fast as possible and you win. Eliminating middlemen certainly removes barriers and flattens the curve.

Let's keep that in mind while working on Drupal. There are a lot of unexplored possibilities here, and it would be great to see us untap some of that potential.

Of course, the funny part is that by doing so, eventually, we'll eliminate ourselves ... But that's a good thing, as it would free up a ton of spare time. ;-)

— Dries Buytaert

2 min read time