After many a poking and prodding and finally having to show him some whisky to get him off his pirate ship, we finally managed to snag some time with Franz Maruna of Concrete5. Be prepared for an entertaining read.
CC: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, we know it's hard to find time amidst developing to break for some good quality questioning :)
FM: Concrete5 is revolutionizing content management. It’s so easy to use - people can’t believe it. Finding the time to talk to people about c5 always easy and fun. Thanks for listening!
CC: Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to get involved in the CMS world.
FM: I have a background in both software engineering and liberal arts. I was programming by first grade, running BBS’s in the 80’s, and doing multi-media art throughout. When I went off to college to study art and philosophy, I had pretty much burned out on computer science.
Strangely, in school everyone was making “pages” about their cats and girlfriends, and sharing them on the internet - which to me had really only been a way to <pause> well… make long distance calls for free. It quickly became clear that a technologist with an eye for design would be in demand. I dropped out of college, and I started as a web production programmer. Through the years I have done absolutely every job in the spectrum of rolls that now go into delivering top-notch websites.
In the early days we were using Server Side Includes and then simple header calls to make our lives easier. Over time the web became more of a middleware, and now a browser based development environment. Concrete5 is the result of years of these trials and tribulations.
CC: What is Concrete5 CMS and how did it come about?
FM: Concrete5 is a building material for great websites. It runs in PHP and MySQL on your live web server. It adds a toolbar at the top of your website, so you can easily make changes and additions as you browse. It does this with out creating restrictions around what a designer and developer can dream up.
It started as an internal toolkit we developed for some client work in 2003. We sold it as a commercial product, and after a complete interface and architecture overhaul, we gave it away for nothing under the very flexible MIT open source license this summer.
CC: Who are the other key players in the organization?
FM: Concrete wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for Andrew Embler, our brilliant CTO. Every day he battles client challenges in
new projects, trouble shoots servers and systems that are already built, maintains the core c5 code base, and periodically listens to me dribble on and on about what we’re going to do next. That man deserves an award. I’m sure he appreciates that you’re reading this instead of him.
There’s a long list of freelancers and employees who have contributed over the years, but we really also owe a lot to Ryan and
<coughs> el Nino – as well as Matt, our interface designer.
CC: What makes Concrete5 different from myriad of other CMS' on the market?
FM: There are so many CMS’ today because it is a real need that isn’t yet being well served. People desperately want to express
themselves as freely online as they can with a pen and paper. If FrontPage, a blog, and MySpace templates is as good as we can do; we’ve failed. It’s impossible to do a market comparison in a couple of paragraphs, but there’s a few huge differentiators that make us unique:
It’s TOTALLY open source. The MIT license because it lets you do ANYTHING you want short of suing us. If you’re building a startup, and you want to get a jump on the competition but truly own all the code you write – our MIT license makes that very easy. As a developer you don’t have to submit your code back to the project. For all I care you can package c5 up exactly as it is today, call it ‘cement6’ and go sell it on CDs in Wal-Mart. We also went ahead and chose SourceForge for hosting the files, so this decision can’t really be un-done later. C5 is free. Period. We strongly believe in the power of free information, so after years of pretending we didn’t, this complete openness makes us feel great.
It is middleware based, not a “publishing system.” A lot of solutions like FrontPage or Contribute let you edit your website locally and then “publish” up to the live site. We think that is awkward at best, and misses a huge opportunity for interactivity and
communication with your audience. If you can’t easily put a form on a page, you’re just making a brochure on the web.
It wasn’t something else first. A lot of what the world uses as CMS actually started as a specific app. We use WordPress for our corporate blog today, because it’s a great blogging platform. That doesn’t mean it’s great for everything else too. The same can be said for any number of news portal apps that are considered general CMS.
Concrete was always designed to be a site building toolkit. We’ve got a flexible permission system and a very intuitive user experience, so we’re not giving you app you have to hack into something else. I remember working on a Mambo project years ago where I was asking myself “gee should I handle these pages with ‘sections’ or ‘topics’ – they seem to basically be the same.” That’s not good. C5 is the building material that brings blocks of content and functionality together into ANY type of website you choose, with ease.
All these other apps are GI-Joes and Barbies - great for playing one type of game. We’re Lego’s – go get creative!
It’s written in the best platform for the web. I know I’m gonna step on toes with this one, but I don’t care. LAMP is still where it is at.
Don’t believe me? Go ask Twitter how Rails is doing, ask Friendster about Java, and if you feel a need to ask Microsoft… well, meh. I don’t know why people think PHP has gone out of vogue. It still serves almost all the porn on the web, let the biz dev wankers make idle promises about that! <pauses for laughter>
Now to mitigate the flame war I’m starting, let me point out I think smart programmers with good communication can make a stellar
application in anything – even Cold Fusion…And vice-versa is true; no language guarantees a great product without a great process… But, PHP is free, it’s everywhere, it’s fast, it’s OOP (yes c5 is object oriented) and it has stood the test of time as a basic part of the
web’s infrastructure. We want to be right there with it as part of the glue that holds the web together.
Most importantly, we have a unique perspective we’ve put into c5. Fundamentally we think there will always be two types of parties
working on a web site – the builders and the owners. A builder might be the neighbor kid with a hacked version of Photoshop in his basement, or it could be Razorfish; their goal is to get in and out successfully.
Owners have to live what these builders made. They need it to last for years, not months. They need it to change with them as their
businesses and organizations change. They need to actually be able to use the thing in new ways without being afraid. We think most of our competition serves one side of this equation or the other, and few demonstrate deliberate thought about that conundrum. C5 serves both sides very well.
CC: You recently were honored with Project of the Month @ Sourceforge. Why do you think that is?
FM: I hope SourceForge appreciated our passion and dug it. This isn’t some business we’re hoping to flip in 18 months, we
genuinely think the web could have the same impact on the world as the printing press did, if it gets easier to use.
I also think they played with the app and were impressed. I’d encourage everyone to take 5 minutes to mess around with the shared
demo at concrete5.org/demo – you’ll get why it’s compelling pretty quickly. We’re only a 3 month old project, but we’re growing fast, I believe SourceForge saw an opportunity to help some good folk trying to do a great thing. We appreciate the honor very much.
We’re very appreciative about being here too, CMSCritic is a great site that is as comprehensive as you can get in this huge space.
CC: What drove your decision to take what was once a commercial product and make it open source?
FM: Sleeping at night, or lack of it. I just had my second kid. I wasn’t doing anything meaningful, just selling software like my dad. It was time to make a difference in the world. It was always a pleasure seeing the faces of our clients’ light up when we sat down for
training at the end of a project and it ended up being just 30 minutes of “hey if you want to change that, just click it. – good luck!” I
wanted more people to have that experience, and I didn’t want to run a web shop with 50 employees.
CC: Do you have any regrets with this move? How has it impacted you from a financial standpoint?
FM: I have absolutely no regrets, going open source easily ranks in the best half a dozen decisions of my life so far.
Giving away free software is expensive. Producing Open Source Software (by Karl Fogel) argues that it actually costs more to get to
market going open source than going commercial. I don’t know if that’s true yet, but having done both, I can tell you it is quite different. ;) So buy a c5kit on our site, or choose us as your hosting provider! Help feed a generous developer!
CC: There are so many big names in the CMS market today, how do you see Concrete5 performing in the next year in comparison?
FM: Being big doesn’t help you deliver great software; in fact the opposite is true. Typically big ideas come from small teams in
basements and garages. We’re in a really unique position here – we’ve had the benefit of being a commercial product for years, but we never had so many clients on previous versions of concrete that supporting and updating their installs became overwhelming. We’ve got all the passion of a garage team, but with the experience of a jaded old web shop under our belts. We also don’t have $7m of someone else’s money we have to spend quickly, and make a 20x return on. The way I see it; we’re in an enviable position.
I hope we continue to see exponential growth over the next 14 months. Being the underdog right now is a real pleasure, and keeping
the flexibility to act quickly is important to me.
CC: What are your favorite Concrete5 driven websites?
CC: If you could change anything about C5 what would it be and why?
FM: I would stop time, go to a beautiful house on the beach with Andy, and write a thousand pages of documentation around how to
best use c5. I guess we don’t need the house on the beach, and that does read a little weird now that I’ve written it, but I still think
it’d be nice.
CC: How can the community help?
FM: Help yourselves first – design themes or build new blocks, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do with projects that have been open source for much longer. We have a marketplace in the works where you’ll be able to sell your work, or give it away for free.
Help others get going. People need help with everything from installing to building. Start playing around so you can become an
expert early, as the market for c5 developers is now emerging. Tell us what we should be doing differently. Send us links to your c5 sites. Tell your friends to check out c5.
CC: Are there any themes or plugins available for C5?
FM: C5 is built around a Themes, Blocks, and Apps architecture that makes it inherently easy to customize without compromising further extendibility.
People around the world are already making stuff for c5 as I type. We’ll be launching a marketplace for them before the end of the year. We’ve got a forum app and an eCommerce app that we’re porting from the previous version of concrete and hope to launch on the marketplace quickly.
CC: What other services does your firm offer? Is CMS your only product offering?
FM: We sell a few smaller software products including AjaxFTP and FlashFloorPlan. We do some high-level support work for other web shops that handle most of the client facing c5 opportunities we hear about. We still do build some web apps and online communities for experienced entrepreneurs, so if you’ve got a big idea you should certainly ask us what we think about it.
CC: Can you provide a sneak peak into upcoming features or changes?
FM: Some small improvements around validation in the blocks that come bundled with the core. The big thing we’re working on now is multi-language support for the dashboard and editing UI. We’re also working on that marketplace & community I mentioned.
CC: Any parting comments?
FM: We’d like to thank CMSCritic for giving us the opportunity to pontificate. Keep up the good work.