I have just spent several days watching most of the videos of presentations form DrupalCon Nashville 2018. It is no substitute for attending, when you learn a lot from BoF sessions and private conversations. Nevertheless, having heard more sessions than would have been possible in person (since several sessions take place simultaneously), it seemed worth sharing a few thoughts and takeaways from my particular perspective. I am going to leave aside many excellent 'how to' sessions covering various aspects of the technology stack, and comment on some broader concerns which affect the community. The following paragraphs touch on social and community issues, which are very much in the Drupal news these days; an interesting use case for Drupal; some observations about the headless Drupal movement; and a couple of presentations which made me think, 'they are onto something which could be huge for the future of the web.'
Social and community issues, in particular diversity and inclusiveness, had been placed at the forefront by those who chose the sessions, as well as by Dries Buytaert. Paradoxically, it seems to be in Trump's USA that such issues occupy minds and raise passions to an even greater degree than they do in most European or Asian countries, though they are surely important everywhere. In addition, the fallout from the controversial treatment of Larry Garfield by both the project lead and by the Drupal Association, which was widely thought, though never clearly admitted, to be wrong, has probably helped focus minds, even though it is no longer alluded to, at any rate in public, and perhaps was one of the factors in Mr. Buytaert's mind as he prepared his 'alpha' version of a document on Drupal Values and Principles, which he introduced at the conference. It is an admirable document, and it is admirable that its author has submitted it for public working out (though only a programmer would develop a policy document on git and invite patches! well, it works for Wikipedia, so why not). I will say no more about my own views: I had sympathy for Mr. Buytaert when he said again and again that he not an expert in issues of diversity. Whilst values are not a matter of expertise, and are too important to be guided by experts―the Third Reich had formally qualified experts on racial and gender diversity, and too many of the politicians and public permitted their values to be guided by those experts―this cop-out may be forgiven in an online world where to nail your colours to the mast and to articulate your personal values with confidence and clarity is, I fear, to elicit hatred from some of those who see things differently. Mr. Buytaert has gone at least as far in doing so as anyone can fairly expect.
'Hatred' is a strong word, and it came to mind as appropriate because it was a description aptly chosen for such social media discussions in passing by the most moving presenter of a non-technical session at Nashville: From Homeless Addict to Winning Drupal: How A Community Can Save Lives. To hear about John Ouellet's difficult life and the benefits which Drupal brought him, and his willingness now to help others, is emotional, notwithstanding the phrase on his drupal.org bio, "John wasn't manufactured with emotions." Given the ongoing struggles which, as Mr. Ouellet mentioned, addicts face, one must wish him well in maintaining his positive direction. I also greatly enjoyed another session which touched on various social issues in the context of personal stories, rather than of general principles: I was wrong.
A conference of this kind is always a reminder of the diverse things you can do with Drupal. The presentation by Mr. Satoshi Kino of Annai in Japanese, The Japan Gov has adopted Drupal8 as its official statistics system, described how the Japanese government has adopted Drupal as a front end for a large statistics system run on clusters of SQL databases queried by Java. When you hear it explained, this architecture makes sense because it can use Drupal caching, as well as using Drupal for the creation of general-purpose nodes and contact forms. In environment where decoupled frontends are on everyone's lips it is natural to describe interaction between Drupal and a large decoupled backend, a non-Drupal database, as 'reverse decoupled.' It was also good to hear that the Japanese government is moving towards open and potentially machine-readable data, an area which the UK government pioneered under the beneficial influence of Tim Berners-Lee and The Open Data institute. It is a mark of an inclusiveness sometimes overlooked by Anglophone apostles of diversity, that a session in a language other than English was accepted for DrupalCon. Part of the credit for the session’s success must go to the virtuosic contribution to it of the unnamed interpreter (in fact, Jay Friendly of Jaypan, a Drupal agency and consultancy for foreign businesses in Japan) . It is to be hoped that the experiment with non-English-speaking sessions will be repeated.
One of the rewards of attending a DrupalCon is to get a feel for the commercial conditions in the world of websites and their makers. There were sessions from which something could be gleaned in this regard. Where Drupal is going (clue: it is losing its head) was clear enough from A farewell to Twig. In the discussion, some questions were along the lines of 'one-person shops now have to learn a lot of new skills, making Drupal sites far more expensive, and yet the sites which clients want and which we are building are not significantly different in purpose or effect than the sites of 10 years ago.' The reply, paraphrased: 'When you are trying to sell a Drupal site for Acquia, if you do not have this you are in hot water.' I am not sure what 'in hot water' means: if the figure of speech in the speaker's mind compared Acquia to a frog, a creature notoriously ill at ease in hot water, I suppose it was a euphemism for 'dying and soon to be dead.' I agree that for vast majority of Drupal sites, the adoption of React and decoupled technologies generally erects a forbidding, expensive and complex additional barrier, though fun no doubt for a certain type of developer, to the adoption of the future Drupal, with few benefits. On the other hand, for better or worse, we are now in a world where we need Acquia and their great contributions to Drupal to flourish, and if Acquia and perhaps a few of the other largest Drupal vendors need to set a particular technical direction in order to flourish in their chosen market segment, as smaller operators we should recognize that in the bigger picture we gain benefits from their success, as well as unuseful problems from the way the technology is moving. Not only is resistance to the needs of the biggest Drupal shops futile, speaking for myself I no longer wish to resist. However, I do wonder whether the headless movement have accurately called the direction of the web.
The direction of the website industry was at issue in two fascinating sessions involving people from Pantheon. The session What's possible with WordPress 5.0 by Andrew Taylor and Steve Persch describes the Gutenberg editor which is coming to WordPress soon, and which, as well as being interesting in itself, will probably have a major impact on the way we, and clients, think about the architecture and use of websites in future. No less fascinating was the session WordPress vs. Drupal: How the website industry is evolving by Zack Rosen from Pantheon, who starts, 'This is the year when I have seen the biggest opportunity for the [Drupal] ecosystem and the product, and the biggest set of challenges, by far.' A big statement, and I fail to do his short presentation justice when I try to summarize his central point, by saying that in his view the future will favour digital agencies who focus on providing an ongoing service, over those who concentrate on providing single large projects such as a website relaunch.
What is the future of the web? Not a thousand miles from the Gutenberg editor, and arguably better, is the Headless Editing Experience developed using web components, assisted by Polymer, and without React or any other frontend framework, created by Bryan Ollendyke and his colleagues. This amazing tool is described in Webcomponents, Polymer and HAX: decoupling authoring for Drupal and beyond. There are two takeaways for me: put this together with WordPress's Gutenberg editor, and you can see that the authoring experience is about improve dramatically by the use of decoupled technology, though it is not yet clear how the waves from this will spread out into other aspects of the way websites are structured (and this was not discussed); and secondly, web components, even if they are unlikely to displace frontend frameworks as Mr. Ollendyke may hope, are going to be hugely important and we should be thinking about them and using them. My other pick for something 'far out' which foreshadows our future, is a session by Ryan Hagerty delving into an example of 'Web 3' (as well as 'web3.js') and blockchain-based uses of the web: Ethereum and React: An introduction to building your first web dApp (apparently a dApp is a decentralized application: decentralization is the key concept implied by 'Web 3'). A rapid technical tour-de-force (as was Fabien Potencier's build of a blockchain currency in PHP, Let's create a blockchain with PHP!), it is obvious that the wider implications of integrating of blockchain and website technologies are both massive and difficult to foresee.
Gratitude goes to all the speakers, including the many excellent presentations I have not named, and to DrupalCon both for organizing the conference and for sharing good videos promptly, to the benefit of those who did not attend.