Content management systems — the good, the bad, and the ugly

Today (well, it’s after midnight, so it was yesterday) I attended a Meetup of the Northampton Web Developers/ Web Designers Meetup Group.

Excellent, excellent meeting. Many web developers there — most looking like young, Silicon Valley Web 2.0 types. Mostly a male crowd, four Macs to one PC in terms of the laptop ratio.

The presenters — all local developers — talked about the pros and cons of WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and self-developed content management systems.

I need a new content management system very badly. The Trombly Ltd. website is built using Dreamweaver, with templates and iFrames linking back to Dabble DB database exports. I love Dabble DB — it’s one of the best, and easiest to use, online relational database systems out there.

We use it for invoicing, workflow, content management, HR, CRM — everything and anything. It requires no programming, and can hold an amazing variety of different content types and can produce online submission forms and gorgeous reports.

When iFrames aren’t enough — for example, if we want Google to be able to search the data exported by the database, or for Google Translate to work — we use PHP to generate static pages, refreshed daily and also on demand. That’s how Emerging China and China Speakers Bureau sites work.

This is getting expensive — PHP programmers don’t come cheap. I was hoping that Drupal would offer a solution that was not programming intensive but more flexible than our iFrames setup.

However, according to the presenters, none of these three content management systems would be able to take in input from our database (in the form of RSS or JSON feeds) without some serious coding, at the very least.

So we’ll be stuck with having our editors copy-and-paste materials from the database into the content management system when they’re ready to publish stories online.

If we’re going to be doing that, I’d want a system that is super easy for them to use — and easy for us to set up and maintain ourselves.

I Twittered throughout the Meetup ( and one of my China-based subscribers, PandaPassport (a.k.a. Rick Martin in Dalian) suggested that I take a look at SquareSpace.

I asked the Northampton developers if they’d heard of it (they hadn’t) so I went to check out the site. It’s expensive — especially compared to WordPress, Joomla and Drupal which are all free because they’re open source. (I do love my iPhone — all the functionality of my laptop. Okay, it’s a rather old laptop, but still….)

I’m going to be giving SquareSpace a try. They’ve got a 14-day free trial, and a beautiful intro video on their home page.

I particularly liked the way they were able to edit all the style elements of the page through a drag-and-drop interface (like my iPhone).

By comparison, the Drupal presentation went more like this (I’m quoting from memory here, so this is very approximate):

Me: Do you have to be a programmer to use Drupal?

Rick Hood of Flow Media Design: No, of course not. Drupal is quite easy to use. Only takes a few minutes to install. All you have to do is upload the file to your web hosting provider, create a files subdirectory, set up a MySQL database — a simple interface in your CPanel — and you’re all set. If you need to customize it beyond the basic templates and modules, you will need to write PHP code, though.

Me: Uhum.

Rick: (Spends an hour explaining in detail all the PHP files that govern templates and design elements in Drupal)

PHP, by the way, looks NOTHING like the normal programming languages I learned in high school and college — Assembler, Basic, Fortran, and Pascal. It looks like the top line of your keyboard exploded — the line with all the symbols.

Well, I’m going to give SquareSpace a try and I’ll tell you guys how it works out.

In W. Mass,