Drupal Commons: Then and Now
by Isaac Sukin
Drupal Commons 1.0 was released almost a year ago, in early August. I was an intern at Mediacurrent at the time, and as the author of several social networking modules, I was intrigued. I dug in and wrote an analysis of where Commons stood relative to its competitors, to the default Drupal installation profile, and to the expectations Acquia's marketing language created for it. I concluded that Commons was a viable contender in the social business software space – but that it was still very much version one. As Acquia co-founder and Vice President Jay Batson noted when I interviewed him, Commons is a product designed for large enterprises, and the kinks would get worked out as those companies realized Drupal's competitiveness.
A year later, Jay Batson is now my boss, and I'm an intern at Acquia working on Commons. So when Commons 1.6 was released last week, I took the opportunity to do a full review to see how far it has come.
The Purpose of Drupal Commons
When Drupal Commons 1.0 was released, there was some initial confusion about what it was, exactly. Commons adopted the "social business software" tag, but it was not widely understood what that meant. Specifically, many people thought of Commons as social networking software – used to build user-focused rather than business-focused websites. And as one of the first high-profile distributions in the Drupal community, Commons also had the hurdle of explaining what a distribution is.
Today, Commons has a strong identity as a serious competitor for large business websites with a sizeable number of stakeholders that need to interact and communicate. Its feature set has filled out, and it still maintains its core strengths in the field: because it's Drupal, it's free to download, infinitely extensible, and not restricted by the limited roadmaps of proprietary software. Drupal responds and adapts quickly to the ever-changing web environment. For example, the Google Fonts API module was released one day after Google announced their Font API and Font Directory. The fact that Commons is free means that businesses can try it quickly, easily, and inexpensively. And because it's an Acquia product, there are all kinds of services supporting it to help your business thrive. Used on websites as large and complex as that of the Defense Information Systems Agency, Commons has proved that it is much more than a toy or experiment.
Flexible vs. Beautiful
Commons 1.0 came with a very plain theme by design to enable straightforward customization. It contrasted with what was otherwise designed to be a complete experience out of the box. In my review, I pointed out that it seemed a shame not to take advantage of the Fusion theme on which Commons' theme was based to create something more aesthetic.
Since then, the default Commons theme has significantly evolved; it looks much nicer, but still retains its functional roots. Even better, Commons 1.6 came with two new themes, illustrating to clients how easy it is to change the look and feel of a Drupal site at the click of a button. The new themes have very nice, professional designs from BrightLemon and VML that add personality to the Commons experience. Furthermore, Acquia is refining its theme structure so that almost all of the repetitive work that usually goes into building a theme is abstracted into the Commons Roots base theme. It's still a work in progress, but the goal is ultimately that themes for Commons can focus solely on developing a brand, letting Commons itself take care of standard CSS elements and templates.
Additionally, the decision of whether to start building a site with Drupal core or Drupal Commons has become much clearer over the past year. Commons 1.0 was basically a collection of preconfigured modules, and I was worried that site builders would spend more time undoing Commons' custom configuration than they would just installing the relevant modules from scratch. However, Commons 1.6 has solid default settings that should work for almost all sites, and Commons is now much more than a collection of modules and settings. As a full-fledged distribution, Commons also pulls in external libraries and performs a significant amount of customization and usability improvements that make the Commons experience smooth and streamlined. Much of the customization that often gets done when building sites on Core has already been done for you in Commons.
From the start, Drupal Commons had a pretty good idea of what feature set it needed to meet the needs of its enterprise users. Even Commons 1.0 was impressive software that promised to make an impact in the industry, and 1.6 has come quite a long way since then. However, there will always be more that can be done, and that's part of why I'm here. I'm excited about the improvements that have already made Commons a much more polished product and I'm even more excited about the features I'll be working on during my time at Acquia. I can't talk about the initiatives yet, but we'll be demoing some of them in a few weeks, so look forward to the next generation of social business software!