Joomla 3.0 review: Making way for mobile
The open-source content-management system has been optimized to deliver content to mobile devices. We take a close look at this latest version.
The release of Joomla 3.0 on September 27 not only marks a new milestone for the seven-year-old open-source (and free) content management system, it also establishes a new goal for Joomla: the mobile platform.
It would be unfair to characterize Joomla 3.0's changes as being solely geared towards mobile-friendly websites, but there's no denying that delivering content for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones influenced many of the changes for this update -- an influence that can be felt throughout the design and implementation of this version.
[Related story: Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress]
Under the hood, many of the features behind Joomla's new look and feel come from the project's adoption of Twitter Bootstrap, a framework of CSS and HTML design templates that works to unify typography, forms, buttons and other components.
The opening screen of a Joomla-based website, with content.
The reliance on Bootstrap was not done just to make the back-end interface look pretty on mobile (though it helps). A more important reason for the move was to help wrangle the 10,000-plus extensions that are available within the Joomla ecosystem. The Bootstrap model within Joomla 3.0 is pervasive throughout the back and front ends of the CMS, and any extension developer who is putting together an add-on for Joomla will be able to use the same components as all other extension developers.
Unification is critical to how the new Joomla performs on any platform, not just mobile, according to Paul Orwig, president of Open Source Matters, a support organization for the Joomla project, and former member of Joomla's leadership team.
In the past, that was not always a given, Orwig explains, particularly for extensions that did work outside of the core Joomla functionality, such as e-commerce. Since Joomla's core software had no e-commerce tools, any given developer of an e-commerce extension would feel free to approach the administrative and front ends of their tool in whatever way they wanted. This led to quite a bit of confusion for admins trying to evaluate the features of each extension.
"Bootstrap is a standard that's adopted a huge variety of components, which will make developers' lives a lot easier," Orwig says.
End-users visiting a Joomla-based site should find more consistency in site elements, too. A desktop or mobile browser interface will be displayed differently to conform to screen size, but content and control elements will still be present on any platform. This is known as responsive design, a concept that many websites are embracing in order to maintain a consistent cross-platform user experience.
And responsive design is baked all the way in -- even the back-end administrative pages are set to respond.
Of course, the introduction of Bootstrap means that the Joomla developer community will need to adjust to the new standard. But there should not be too much friction, since Bootstrap integration is hardly a surprise, having been well publicized since early 2012. Plus, given the two-birds-with-one-stone elegance of Bootstrap for standards-based and flexible-platform development, early indications are that this approach is being welcomed by the community at large.
Shifting to mobile isn't Joomla 3.0's only preparation for the future. The new release also includes support for the open-source PostgreSQL database, a third addition to the databases supported by Joomla, alongside MySQL and Microsoft SQL. Orwig says this was done to emphasize Joomla's database independence, but PostgreSQL adoption has picked up a bit among open-source projects of late, as many community members worry about Oracle's ultimate plans for MySQL. There is no hard evidence justifying the community's collective heebie-jeebies, but that hasn't stopped some players from hedging their bets with PostgreSQL, too.
Other shiny new features include the capability to copy a template, as well as installing language packages directly from the Extension Manager.
When the new features and changes under the hood are all put together, how does it all look and respond? In this review, I will examine how Joomla 3.0 stacks up as a cutting-edge CMS.
Installing Joomla is a essentially a three-stage process: prepare a database in MySQL (or one of the other databases), download and uncompress the files for the CMS into a separate directory within your Web server's folders, then step through a Web-based installation that completes the job.
For this article, I used a straightforward LAMP ( Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) server, as plain vanilla as I could create on an openSUSE 12.2 machine. Specifically, I installed Apache 2, MySQL 5.5 and PHP 5; a MySQL module for PHP was also installed. It is important to have FTP server software installed on the same machine, since Joomla needs FTP to upload and install add-ons such as plug-ins, extensions and themes.
Once all the software was in place, I had to perform the next step: Create a database with MySQL with which the CMSes would communicate. If you're familiar with the command line on Linux, this is not hard to do, and indeed it's not hard on Windows, with plenty of documentation out there to walk you through the process. To make my life easier, I also installed phpMyAdmin on the LAMP server. This Web-based interface makes it easier to install and configure the database Joomla needs to run efficiently.
If you don't want to worry about the Joomla installation, there are many ways you can install the software on a Web server. Many Web host providers allow you to select from a menu of CMS servers that can be directly assigned by the host provider to the domain or sub-domain you specify. No muss, no fuss. All you have to do is select what options you want, click a button, and in about 15 minutes you'll have a freshly installed Joomla server on your domain, ready to configure.
Another option is use a service like Bitnami, which provides open-source servers for installation on native devices, virtual machines or even cloud-based servers using Amazon's Web Services. I have used Bitnami servers before, and their installation was flawless every time.
Of course, since Joomla 3.0 just recently came out, you may have to wait for a while for Web hosts and services like Bitnami to catch up and actually provide this bleeding-edge version of Joomla.
However, if you don't want to wait, don't worry: Once the LAMP server is configured and the MySQL database is prepped, much of the hard work is done anyway, so installing it yourself from scratch isn't that bad.
After downloading the Joomla 3.0 software from the project's download page, installation begins by uncompressing the file into a new /joomla directory. Then it's just a matter of visiting YourWebSite/joomla in a browser to finish it up.
Joomla 3.0 has a much more compressed GUI installation than previous versions; there are now three screens to step through instead of the old six screens. Despite the compression of discrete steps, the installation is still straightforward.
The first screen of a Joomla installation.
Especially welcome is the very complete Configuration review screen, which precisely outlines which features you selected for your site. It's not new, but the layout, like many of the design changes in this new version of Joomla, is easy to read and confirm.
As with past versions, Joomla's last installation screen also requests permission to install sample data in the new Joomla site, which is encouraged for beginners, but not for anyone else.
Why? If you're a beginner, these examples allow you to judiciously replace them with the content, layout and templates for your own Web site. That's why the material is there. But -- and this is a strong but -- if you have any experience with Joomla, then you will definitely not want to apply the sample data, because it will burden your site with a taxonomy of content and content categories that you probably will not want. Undoing all of these elements is possible, but time consuming, so think about building from scratch if you're comfortable with Joomla.
The only problem that I experienced with the install process was in the very last section: After finishing, Joomla requires you to remove the \Installation directory, because leaving it in poses a big security risk. Clicking the Remove button on the browser screen failed to work, so I had to use the command line to remove it myself. This is nothing that couldn't be done in a few second's time, but it would have been nice for the function to work as advertised.
I have always been a fan of Joomla's back end, because frankly, it's what a site administration control panel should look like: A single set of segregated pages that collects all the administrative tools in one place.
Joomla 3.0 is no exception. However, right out of the gate, anyone with any experience in CMSes is going to ask themselves, "Who spilled WordPress all over my Joomla?"
It's not that Joomla 3.0 copied WordPress' control interface. But there's a definite WordPress feel to the new control panel. The general layout has similarities: Controls are organized in blocks rather than the multi-column, very horizontal method found in previous versions of Joomla.
The reason for this new design is simple: It's much easier to display controls in a reactive design when the content is displayed vertically. The net effect is that controls and tools are formed to fit in much narrower areas in order to work better on screens that are taller than they are wide, like those on mobile devices.
The Joomla controls are completely redesigned in Joomla 3.0.
Navigating around Joomla's new interface is like visiting a remodeled home. The walls are moved and repainted, and the furniture is restored, but all the familiar things of the home are still there. Article Manager, Media Master and Menu Manager are still there and, surprisingly, function very much the same, despite their new look and feel.
There's good and bad in this. The good news is that all of the old favorites in Joomla are still there, ready to go. The bad news is that some of the old idiosyncrasies of Joomla seem to be there, too, like Joomla's one-menu-item-per-page limitation that you have to design around.
Exploring the specific content tools, I was happy to see that the new design layout went beyond making Joomla suitable for the small screen. Configuration options and filters are much more accessible and stand out more than the smaller icon and text control links in previous versions.
In Joomla 3.0, content controls are much easier to find.
The overall effect of this redesign is not to add new functionality to Joomla so much as to make the old functionality much more obvious. To change the name of a site, you used to have to drill down a couple of screens to make the change. Now it's right in the Global Configuration screen.
At a Glance
Open Source MattersPrice: FreePros: Design elements better suited for mobile platforms; controls much easier to find, making it better for beginners; installation simpler and fasterCons: Not many new features past design; still need to wait for extensions to catch up with this version
One of the really great aspects of this redesign is that extensions and plug-ins all have a similar control interface. The old inconsistencies between extension controls used to drive me nuts.
Building a test site was, as usual, pretty straightforward. Once you understand the use of categories and menus within a Joomla site, getting things organized is a snap. I got the sense that the new interface will actually help newer users build their sites, because controls are so easy to find. That's a very subjective statement, mind you; my strong familiarity with Joomla in general makes that theory hard to prove just from my observations alone.
In the past, I recommended Joomla for sites that are somewhat complex and are going to be managed by someone with strong technical skills. That recommendation still holds, but the new design of the back-end elements makes the system a bit more accessible to beginners, especially when the sample content is used.
Now that the responsive design features have been baked in, Joomla has a lot going for it for mobile developers as well. With a huge community, plenty of extensions and many templates, Joomla 3.0 has a lot to offer developers. I am looking forward to watching this platform mature.
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