@WordPress Happy Birthday!

Five years ago today, a new blogging platform was released to the world for the first time. WordPress was the successor to b2/cafelog, itself launched in June 2001 – and indeed, it’s amusing to review Cafelog’s readme from 2002, which describes many of the very same functions I’m using on a regular basis. WordPress launched with a redesigned admin interface made ‘as simple as possible, and no more’; and streamlined presentation templates ‘with the latest in simple, easy-to-understand standard XHTML and CSS’.
Five years on, it’s these very same qualities which make it – in my view – such an important piece of code today.
I can’t stress enough how much WordPress means to me. I started just over Puffbox just over a year ago, with the intention of doing mainly advisory work, and rarely getting my hands dirty. But it soon became obvious that WordPress was a platform I could work with. It took care of the ugly, complicated stuff I knew I didn’t understand, letting me get on with the top-layer stuff I knew so well. And it offered users a front-end which allowed them to do virtually everything they (really) needed, without bugging their chums in IT.
The Puffbox proposition changed overnight. Now I’m now just preaching a gospel of open source-led, low-cost, high-speed site development, I’m able to actually deliver it myself.
People come to Puffbox looking for two things. One: rapid development of small-scale websites, which can be managed without an IT department. Two: larger websites with ‘blog-esque’ or ‘2.0’ features as standard – community, comments, inbound and outbound feeds, etc. And invariably, WordPress is equal to the task.
I often reflect on the line from psychologist Abraham Maslow: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.’ Maybe there are better or neater ways to do what I do. Maybe smarter or more experienced people would do it differently. All I know is, people like what I’m delivering. It’s fast, it’s cheap and it works – often better than the million-quid solution they hate dealing with. And it’s all because of WordPress (plus a basic knowledge of PHP).
To Matt Mullenweg and the gang: thank you.
PS: I’ve finally got round to signing up for the forthcoming UK Wordcamp to be held in Birmingham in mid-July. I’ll probably offer to lead a session on what I do, including details of one h-u-g-e project currently in the works.

'Our NHS' reskinned

One of my favourite projects over the last year has been Our NHS, Our Future – the website for Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS. With the review entering its final stages, we’ve taken the opportunity to give the site a lick of paint, and reworked the homepage.
Reflecting the local focus of the review, the centrepiece of the new homepage is a great big clickable map showing England broken up into its Strategic Health Authorities. Each SHA is publishing a ‘vision document’ over the next month or so: clicking the map will generate a popup with a news story about the document, or a ‘coming soon’ message. It’s all being done with PHP and Javascript, so the site manager only has to write and publish his story: everything else is automated from there. We’re also hoping to get photos from each launch event, which will get added into the map’s popups via Flickr’s tag feeds. (Not a huge enhancement: we’ve been consuming YouTube RSS feeds since last year.)
This is the third iteration of the website in nine months: we launched initially in late August using Typepad, but moved to WordPress in November as Typepad showed its limitations. It perfectly demonstrates the value in adopting a blogging platform as your CMS: sure, the (base) content type is primitive… but it means the job of tweaking, redesigning or even migrating becomes so much easier.

Puffbox.com technical problems

Apologies to anyone trying to access this website over the course of Thursday. Due to a slight misunderstanding with my ISP, the site was taken (briefly) offline. Thankfully, it’s all steadily resolving itself. But if you were trying to get a comment through to the website, or trying to email me since Wednesday evening, please try again.
As it happens, it was a pretty simple hiccup. The automated email, sent ‘by’ my UK-based ISP, said I had to renew my domain by 05/06/2008. Each time a date was quoted, it was quoted in that same format. Not unreasonably, given that I’m dealing with a UK ISP, I took that to mean 5 June. It actually meant 6 May.
It serves as a warning to anyone planning to deal trans-Atlantically… including, as in this case, companies outsourcing parts of their customer-facing activity. I bet I’m not the first to fall foul of this.

Long Term Support for WordPress

Oops. I wrote this piece yesterday, wishing that WordPress offered Long Term Support for occasional releases, along the lines of Ubuntu. I then get a comment from Mr WordPress himself, Matt Mullenweg, telling me that there actually is a long-term supported release. Here it is for the record…

The official policy from Team WordPress about software upgrades, as described by Matt Mullenweg last month, is pretty straightforward: when we release a new version, you should upgrade. Like, immediately. But when you’re dealing with the corporate world, where you deliver a project and effectively walk away, it isn’t quite so simple… and I’d personally welcome a Long Term Support approach along the lines of Ubuntu.
WordPress was built for bloggers: technically literate self-publishers, with some grasp at least of what’s involved in running a website. But as I’ve documented here countless times, and as my continuing mortgage payments demonstrate, comms professionals with no particular IT skills find its convenience, flexibility and simplicity (not to mention the price) equally appealing.
But the chink in the armour, if you like, is WordPress updates. Corporate projects tend to come with lists of requirements, which push well beyond normal blog-based sites. Normally, these requirements are achievable using plugins or a bit of custom code. But as Matt acknowledges, when an upgrade comes, there’s no guarantee that a particular plugin will work. And even worse, given that most plugins are offered up by volunteers, there’s no guarantee that the plugin will be updated accordingly.
I’m afraid Matt’s assertion that ‘having a secure site is much more important than the functionality of a single plugin’ won’t really stand up in the corporate context. You’ll ultimately face a decision between a site which might be at risk, but does everything you want; or (to put it provocatively) an under-performing site which still won’t be 100% secure anyway, because nothing ever is. And I’m afraid most marketing or communications people will choose the former.
There’s also the issue of the high-visibility upgrade notifications in the more recent WordPress releases. Whilst these are fantastic for those of us who run our own server setups, and aren’t scared of the upgrade process, I’ve had several phone calls from clients who are seeing this warning, and panicking (I’d say) unnecessarily. And I can’t honestly promise them that ‘hey, just do it, nothing can possibly go wrong.’
There is a compromise solution here: and that’s the model of Ubuntu‘s Long Term Support releases.
There’s a new version of Ubuntu’s Linux package every six months, with a promise to offer product support (ie minor fixes) for at least 18 months. But some of these are designated as having Long Term Support: these come with a promise of three years’ worth of fixes for the desktop version, and five years’ worth for server versions. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never have to do a major upgrade. But it’s a guarantee that the fundamentals won’t change for a considerable period – long enough to put the IT manager’s mind at rest.
That’s the kind of commitment I’d value as a WordPress ‘developer’. I want to present pitches to clients based on guarantees, not probability. And I’ve seen specific examples of excellent WordPress plugins, perfectly secure and stable in their own rights, which suddenly become obsolete because something changes in the next major WordPress release. Looking back, the changes are almost certainly for the better overall; but not if I’ve built a particular function around a particular plugin which no longer works.
The v2.5 release of WordPress takes it to a new level of maturity. A policy of LTS releases, ideally via simple ‘overwrite this file with that file’ patching, would signal the product’s readiness to be taken most seriously in corporate environments. And it would make an already strong proposition almost undeniable.

… and here’s the info about the ‘legacy 2.0 branch’ which is almost exactly what I was asking for. Now, I consider myself fairly well versed in the ways of WordPress, but I’d never even heard of this, and various Google searches yielded nothing.
I guess my only response would be that the description of the legacy branch needs to be rethought. The word ‘legacy’ (to me anyway) sounds negative; the idea of ‘Long Term Support’ sounds positive.
My thanks to Matt for correcting me, without making me sound like a total idiot.

Liveblogging the election results

Interesting to note some of the attempts to ‘live blog’ the election results last week – with Guido Fawkes, Slugger O’Toole and ConservativeHome all using CoverItLive‘s fantastic liveblogging ‘app’. Needless to say, there’s significant variation in the tone of each site’s usage.
Of course, it’s ironic to note both having a pop at Gordon Brown’s leadership when, dare I mention it, it was a Downing Street website – produced by yours truly – which first brought this technology to the attention of the UK political scene.
Now Iain Dale’s gone a bit CoverItLive-crazy, using it as an ad-hoc chatroom facility. It’s not really what it was intended for, and it’s probably quite hard work for Iain and colleague Shane Greer to moderate, but it does the job I suppose. They’re making good use of the popup polling mechanism, it must be said.
Correction: It took a heck of a lot of digging to find it, but I discover that ConservativeHome did use the CoverItLive tool back in January. My apologies; a straightforward Google search didn’t reveal it. I’m grateful to Guido for the advice to the contrary.

Pause for thought

It’s been a week since I wrote anything on the blog, and it’s likely to be another week before I write anything else. I thought I’d explain why, in case you thought I was dead or something.
It’s partly because so much of what’s happening at the moment is party-political, with elections imminent and a few (ahem) Whitehall issues dominating the headlines. This blog is about the business of politics and government, but we try never to express a party-political preference. And that would be nigh-on impossible in the current circumstances.
It’s also partly because I’ve got several projects I’d love to talk about, but can’t. Two are virtually complete: under starter’s orders, but not yet out of the stalls. Two more are in relatively advanced stages of development, and should make quite a splash in mid-May. And then there’s the one I’m most excited about, which will probably be my main focus into June. (No disrespect to the others, all exciting in their own right… but this one is huge.)
But it’s mainly because I’m worn out, and need a few days off. So let’s all sit back and watch the banter of the London mayor vote (and its aftermath)… and reconvene here again after the Bank Holiday break. All those in favour? Great. Night night, everyone.

On tour with the PM

I hinted that there might be more online initiatives coming out of 10 Downing Street; and true enough, next out the world-famous door is a bit of on-the-spot blogging from Gordon Brown’s trip to the United States later this week.
For the first time on a foreign visit, a member of the No10 web team is joining the PM’s entourage, armed with a laptop, a camera, a fresh WordPress installation back at base, and the passwords to the Flickr and Twitter accounts. And as Downing Street announced last week, we’re mashing it all together into a ‘live’ microsite.
The plan is to cover the set-piece events – speeches, press conferences, etc – via Twitter flashes, to be followed up with a longer, more considered blog post. Pictures will be posted on Flickr, most likely a combination of agency-sourced images and snaps from our man on the spot. And it’ll all be pulled together by the power of RSS, into the custom WordPress theme I’ve built.
When a journalist does this, it’s considered cutting-edge. But when the tables are turned, and the civil servants start doing it too? Let’s see.
My favourite element is the plotting of stories on a Google Map planted on the homepage. Granted, it’s fairly crude: articles written in Washington will be assigned a WordPress category ‘washington’, then when you click on the Google Map pushpin over Washington, you’ll see the appropriate archive listing. We aren’t talking GPS coordinates or anything. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try doing it… and it works. 🙂
As with the Progressive Governance summit website, it’s experimental. We’re hoping to bring a new first-person perspective to things, but naturally it can’t be too personal: striking an appropriate balance could prove tricky. We’re banking on internet access being readily available; and it may or may not be practical for one person, with limited hands-on experience, to do all these things. But hey, there’s only one way to find out.
The fun starts late on Tuesday, or early on Wednesday, depending where you are. Please have a look, and tell us what you think.

Summit microsite ready (phew)

It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, as you may have picked up from stories on other blogs, but we’ve finally got the Progressive Governance summit microsite ready for the start of proceedings tomorrow morning. The discussion papers are up, the comment facility is switched on, the live streams are configured and ready. And my alarm is set for 5am. 😕

Progressive Governance website, Friday night

I’m not sure if I’m excited or nervous at the prospect of the ‘live blog’. I’ve done similar things in equally high profile situations, running the live text commentary for a couple of Mr Brown’s Budgets whilst working at Sky News (1998, I think – wow, ten years ago)… but I’m effectively appointing myself the Prime Minister’s Online Spokesman for the day, which is kind of nuts now I think about it. And very trusting of them.
It’s bound to attract more than its fair share of malicious and frivolous participants. But it’s a first, certainly in UK government, and almost certainly globally (unless you know better?); and it’s another innovation to add to the list. I’m particularly looking forward to using the CoverItLive tool. Full report to follow, naturally.

No10's new microsite by Puffbox

Fresh from its success with Twitter, 10 Downing Street is preparing for a weekend of social media experimentation, in association with Puffbox.
This Saturday, Gordon Brown is hosting a gathering of around 20 left-leaning world leaders under the banner of Progressive Governance, to discuss globalisation, climate change, development and international institutional reform. (It got a brief mention in yesterday’s monthly press conference, but you’d be forgiven for missing it.) With the renewed appetite for online experimentation at Number 10, I was asked to put together a microsite for the event – running on WordPress, and incorporating a few ‘web 2.0’ tools and tricks.
The site went live late this afternoon – sort of. There’s very little to see so far: the supporting materials, and our ideas of what to do with them, are still coming together. In fact, I fully expect to be coding up new templates and functions live on the day. I know rapid development has become a bit of a Puffbox trademark, but we’ve never cut it quite this fine before. 🙂
The centrepiece will be a live video stream of the proceedings, with a text commentary / discussion thread alongside. You could call it ‘live tweeting’, but we’re probably not going to use Twitter (tbc though). We’ll be posting the conference’s discussion papers for online viewing, with the opportunity for you to post your comments alongside. We’re hoping to get photos beamed into the site from the conference venue, via Downing Street’s new Flickr account; their well-established YouTube channel may also come into play. As may anything else which crosses my mind in the meantime.
It’s an ideal opportunity for innovation: a one-off, relatively low-profile event, not exactly on the scale of a G8, but still significant enough to be taken seriously. The ludicrously tight timeframe is forcing us to make rapid, almost instinctive decisions: in my book, that’s a good thing.
If you’re interested to see what we make of it, believe me – so am I. It all happens on Saturday morning, with the live proceedings due to wind up in the early afternoon. With Arsenal-Liverpool Round Two kicking off at 12.45pm, I’m relying on my fellow Gooner, David Miliband to ensure things stay on schedule.

WordPress says 'why not?'

I’ve never made a secret of my preference for WordPress, the blogging platform which is steadily growing up into a formidable CMS. And having played around with the latest Release Candidate of version 2.5, I’m more convinced than ever of its merits. Sometimes I fear I’m coming across as a WordPress zealot. And whilst I wouldn’t be ashamed of that label, there’s a deeper motivation than just personal preference.
When it comes to publishing online, WordPress can almost certainly do almost everything you want a website to do. If it can’t be done ‘out of the box’,  directly or with a bit of lateral thinking, there’s probably a plugin available, or it’s straightforward to hack together in the PHP code. If you can produce the HTML, you can turn it into a WordPress template.
It’s free; the underlying software you require is free; and you can buy a year’s hosting for as little as £30 (seriously). It downloads in seconds, and installs in a matter of minutes (tops). No procurement, no process, no lead time. It’s quicker to do it than to think about doing it.
The training requirement? As close to zero as it’s possible to imagine. If you can use Word, or even just basic email, you can use WordPress. And it automates so much of the mundane management tasks. And that’s before we consider the redesigned user interface of v2.5, which will be along shortly.
So we’re at a point where the ability to publish something is a given. A basic blog could be up and running within the hour. A more sophisticated site might take a couple of weeks, but that’s still nothing in e-gov timescales. So now, if you aren’t doing something on the web, it’s not because you can’t… it’s because you won’t. Or as Tom Watson put it in his Tower 08 speech, the question has moved from ‘how’ or ‘why’, to ‘why not’.
In theory then, it frees you up to think hard about what you’re trying to achieve, and who you’re trying to talk to. In theory, it takes you from ‘idea’ to ‘operational’ in a couple of weeks, before your enthusiasm has faded, and the idea has gone stale (or been superceded).
No excuses. If you want to do something, we almost certainly have the tools to do it. So… how much do you really want to do it?