John Faber - Open Web & business composability
John Faber is a managing partner at the full service web agency Chapter Three which specializes in Drupal and in Next.js.
In this episode, we discuss the Open Web and what role composability can play in it. We talk about the importance of owning your own content and the advantages of open source over proprietary platforms in this context. We also discuss other key pillars of the Open Web, such as privacy and the changes going on there.
Links & mentions:
“If we don’t have Open Web, then those inspirational moments might be dulled out. Like, would we have Linux? I mean, Linux was a complete open-source package that grew into multi-million, billion dollar companies. Had there not been this ethos around it of people helping people, perhaps that might not have evolved the same way.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone, thank you for tuning in. Our guest today is John Faber, managing partner at the full service web agency Chapter Three which specializes in Drupal and in Next.js. Today we’ll be talking about the open web and business composability, with a particular focus on the content that companies produce.
John, welcome to the show, it’s great having you with us. Anything you’d like to add here before we dive into the questions?
John Faber: Thanks, Tim, for inviting me. I’m super excited to talk about this. I think that the world that we’re in is definitely evolving. And, yeah, I’ve been with Chapter Three now for almost 14 years, and I’ve been in the Drupal community for 20 years. So, I’ve really watched Drupal evolve from sort of a cool project into a much larger complex player in this world. So, super glad to be here.
Tim Butara: Yeah, and all of this is especially relevant today, the day that we’re recording this, which we’ll get into a little bit later. But the first thing that I need to ask you today, John, that we need to clear up before we dive into the meat of all of this, is what even is the open web, and why do we need the open web?
John Faber: Well, that’s a great question. And I think the open web is several things. But in context of what, from my business and what we are talking about, the open web to me means open-source software, it means free code, it means code that’s built by a community. And why do we need that? And, again, open-source software has been around for a long time. It really was some of the things that inspired what we have today. Lots of software came out of open source and evolved into commercial software from an open-source beginning. And some software didn’t.
So, we believe in the software that is part of this open web movement. And why do we need it? Well, I mean I think there’s so many reasons why we need it, that I can break it down into four fundamentals why we need it. And I think that it’s based around open standards, decentralization, freedom and innovation, and privacy and security.
And interestingly enough, I was thinking about this stuff, I wrote this stuff up a couple of days ago, and then this morning Dries’s blog has this post called The Open Web Manifesto. As a matter of fact, Drupal itself, the Drupal Association, created a manifesto around the software itself called The Drupal Open Web Manifesto. And interestingly, it actually mirrors the four things that I outlined here about why we need this.
So if I go into a little bit more detail on each one of those, open standards is really important because it allows everybody to understand what’s going on. It’s an inclusive way of creating software. And the interesting thing about inclusion in software creation – and you notice that our community is way into that – it means that really anybody could be the next big sensation within our community, or really create something with our product that they learned themselves, because it’s open, and they created something completely new that could have never been created had they not had those open standards and perhaps a community behind them to support it.
And a community means people helping each other for free. That’s really what this means, that there’s no money going on here, right. So I think that’s a big one. And we’ve seen this in our community, in Drupal. We’ve seen amazing innovations come out of our community by community members who we didn’t really know who they were before they joined Drupal, and all of a sudden they changed the world by doing something in Drupal – or in other software, but we’re talking about Drupal here.
And I’ve got tons of examples of that within our community, of people who did things because they felt inspired and they were able to because of an open toolset. And so this goes back to Open Web. If we don’t have Open Web, then those inspirational moments might be dulled out. Like, would we have Linux? I mean, Linux was a complete open-source package that grew into multi-million, billion dollar companies. Had there not been this ethos around it of people helping people, perhaps that might not have evolved the same way.
And decentralization is huge. And we’ll talk about this some more as we move through this conversation. But centralization in any context is not good. We have not seen great things come out of huge amounts of centralization in government, really in anything, right. So, software is the same thing. And we notice today that we’re centralized. There’s a lot of it, right? So I think that decentralization’s huge. I really do. I think that one is like, own your own stack, composable model, all those things we’re going to talk about.
And, again, freedom and innovation, man, that is the real spirit of where things come from in the world, freedom and innovation. And, you know, open source is free, just like love. Have you ever seen that shirt? An ethos that is the Open Web. I mean, that’s really what it is, right? And then, again, we’ve got privacy and security. That’s another huge one that we’ll talk about a little bit more. But privacy and security is huge. And how do you really know that your data or content is private unless you have an open standard to compare what’s going on?
We’re evolving into a world where centralization in the computer world seems to really be the focus, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok – all of these things are centralized islands that everybody goes on to and not even cares how it operates. They don’t care, they’re just there. But their data is being tracked, they’re being monitored, they’re being manipulated, it’s just, it’s insane.
Those are the four fundamentals, though; open standards, decentralization, freedom and innovation, and privacy and security. If we don’t have those in society, and we need to maintain those in society – and especially in the computer world – and so, that’s why I think we need Open Web. And what it is basically freedom, free software, people doing things, helping each other in a non-monetary fashion. Which is such a weird thing to talk about, but that is what it is.
Tim Butara: So, on the one hand you have this open-source approach that’s driven by platforms such as Drupal that we talked about– by the way, it’s really interesting that we’re recording this on the exact day that Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, published the Drupal Open Web Manifesto, as you just said – but on the one hand we have this, and on the other we have proprietary platforms, centralized software.
So, obviously, you made a very strong case as to why companies should opt for this open-source, open approach, rather than the proprietary, closed-off approach. Is there anything that we missed in this context, are there any other important reasons here? As well as, why is there such a big focus on content in particular?
John Faber: Well, I mean, so the question is sort of two things, right. Should companies turn towards the open web? And if they don’t, what is the difference with the proprietary situation? And I thought about that a little bit. And I think in some ways it comes down to the ethos of the company. Like, some companies, I will admit, just don’t care about this stuff.
So the open web there, if you try to go in and sell it, or talk about it, it’s just something that doesn’t– you know, they’re built on partnerships with all these proprietary companies and they have their whole businesses built that way. Which is one model to go on – and again, that’s the ethos of the organization. Companies that maybe feel better about privacy and feel better about owning their proprietary thoughts would consider the open web and open software and the privacy factors that can be built into it as something important to the values of their business.
And then on the content side of things, now, you know, Drupal is a content management system, and so we’re always watching what’s going on out there. And I’ve been in the content management business for 20 years. And it really started out as HTML websites, that was your content. And then people like Dries figured out how to attach the database to the front end and that was your stuff, but it was still, we kind of owned all our own stuff. You owned your website, you owned your content, you owned it, it was yours, you could tar it up and put it on your machine or whatever, right.
We’ve evolved into companies that just don’t mind giving all their content away to third-party providers, which is perhaps an easier way to go or maybe a faster way to go – I don’t know since, we’ve never done it – but there is a risk factor in that. And I think going forward, as we move forward in technology, that risk factor is growing, in the sense that, as technology gets more refined, really, your differentiator in life is your proprietary content and messaging that you are putting out into the world. If everybody can talk like you, then how do you compete, right?
So it was a lot easier in the past to keep that proprietary messaging close to heart. Nowadays, with proprietary systems particularly and then with the advent of AI, I just feel this worry of, like, can you imagine giving all your content to some third-party corporation with a huge license that says stuff that you might not catch, like we could sell the company, or we own your data in some way?
Oh my gosh, I mean, that is scary to me in the sense that, once these companies have a pile of people putting their content on there – and they run something like AI in the back, you don’t even know they’re doing it, they spin off other products on your content– I don’t know, man, this is beginning to sound way sketchy to me, right.
And this is where my conversations are coming from, because you don’t have to do it that way. There are other ways to do it, from mild to wild, in terms of owning your own stuff, right. And we can take it even a step further. Content is content. But in our world, content is architecture. It’s how we use content in a display-entity fashion to talk to our customers and produce digital experiences.
The architecture of the display is all the work, that’s what we do, right? I mean, that is what we do, content architecture. And that’s what makes people successful. You look at Drupal websites, you know, like, Views, the magical module, did so much for content architecture, it was like one of this foundational scaffolding things that said, I can put a bunch of content together and redisplay it in different ways.
If you go further on that and you take that content architecture piece and give it to somebody else and then you want to move, or you want to do anything, I mean you’re kind of stuck, right? The deeper you get, the more stuck you are, the more custom you have for this proprietary company building for you, the more stuck you are– I don’t like the word stuck. So that’s where I feel like the content is important, right. You should own your content at a minimum on a platform that can serve it up via API.
So, in my vision, in the future, people would have content management platforms that they own, that are private, that they serve up via API. It’s not scanned on AI, it’s not picked up on AI. But, anyway, that’s why I think the content is so important. Because, what else is there, pictures?
And with AI, especially, we need to be careful. Because AI can sort of flatten it all out, so no one’s different than anybody else. Because it’s already analyzed, it’s done everything. So, AI, I don’t want you to see my stuff. I don’t want you to know exactly what I’m doing, I don’t want you to be able to have that energy or power behind my organization, especially on my content side of things. I want to decide exactly what you get, when you get it, how you get it. It’s my decision, it’s my content, it’s my architecture.
So, open web is the way to do that. Using open platforms like Drupal and others that are out there; there are other open-source platforms. I’m in Drupal for 20 years so you’re not going to hear me talking about other ones. Drupal is a content management platform that does solve this in a true open web way with a leader, Dries, who completely believes in open web, that supports the four ideas, privacy, security, innovation, all of those things.
So, to me, this evolution of companies that are taking companies’ content, especially corporate companies’ content, it’s just a matter of convenience for them. Those companies don’t have the ethos of privacy and security– privacy and security is kind of like their business, right, they’ve taken privacy and they make money off it.
So, anyway, that is why I believe that open web right now and content– content is king, it always has been. But now it’s really king. Remember when content came out and we were like, we want Google to search it, cause we want to be found? That was the paradigm. And it was cool! Put content in, maybe you show up on Google, people come to your website. It’s like this little thing we had going, right.
Now all of a sudden it’s completely different. It’s like, hey, AI is going to scan your whole website, we don’t need to go to your website anymore, we know everything that you’re doing. And we’ve completely shifted the paradigm away from it. We want to ingest your content and put it into our index, so that we can refactor it into new content; well, I didn’t give you permission to do that, so.
That’s kind of where my head is around it. I feel like the protection of content is very very important. People have not kept their eye on the ball and they’re giving their content away. And I don’t know if the– there’s an unintended consequence in there that has not been realized. And I see it.
Tim Butara: A few things that we also highlighted when we were deciding on the topics for this was potentially changing license agreements of corporations that provide these platforms and how that might impact your content; and then also stuff like just benefits of open source over proprietary content, proprietary software, such as open source not being controlled by a board and being controlled by the community. Which you also showcased really well with the example of Drupal and how it’s innovating, and how all the innovation is both driven and supported and encouraged by the Drupal community, for the Drupal community, and for anybody else basically. Can we talk about this for a little bit too?
John Faber: Yeah. You know, Drupal is based upon the concept of all, like, boats rise on a rising tide, and so I think that that’s a good concept for our community to continue to build upon. In terms of– wait, ask that question again?
Tim Butara: So I thought just that we should talk a little bit more about some other potential pitfalls of corporate ownership of content, such as potentially changing license agreements in the future, and the fact that proprietary companies are controlled by a board, versus open source which is by the community – things like that, to kind of highlight this decision, or the advantages of open over proprietary.
John Faber: Yeah. And I think to start the answer to that particular question, proprietary software is in business for one thing and that’s to make money, and that’s what they’re driven by, money. And open source is not driven by money. Open source is driven by innovation and good for all. So, those are two very different vectors for us to be on. And again, it goes down to the ethos of the business and the business owner – where is their head at in terms of this type of stuff?
If you go down the proprietary road, you do need to be worried about some specific things, which is, really, true ownership. And true ownership is laid out in your contract and license agreement with the organization that you’re doing business with. And I don’t know if you’ve ever read these licenses before. I have; they’re complex.
They also have, you know, we can sell our company. And the new company is going to come in and buy all of our assets. And you’re okay with that. You have to be, because if not, they don’t want to do business with you, right? Cause they’re in business to build up a pile of recurring business and sell it. They’re not there for the good of all. They are in there for the good of their board, organization, stockholders, for profit.
And again, it’s an ethos. Some people don’t care about this. Some people are like, we’re for profit, we don’t care. I’m not that type of person, and I know that there are other people who are not that type of people. I think, and I’m going to come to DrupalCon Europe this year, but I think that this idea of privacy, ownership, open web versus corporate licenses that have some stuff in there which is, like, we can make money off you, let’s boil it down, that’s what it is… I think it’s more accepted in Europe that they don’t really like this corporate stuff and they like the privacy stuff.
And that’s because the ethos in Europe is different than the ethos in the United States. In the United States, much of the ethos is around making money at all costs. In Europe, it’s not like that, right. So, again, you can see the differences here of proprietary/open, it comes down to what you believe in as a person, because some people just don’t believe in this stuff. But if you do get into business with a corporation, especially on the content side of things, be careful. Make a copy. You know what I mean? Read the license and make sure there’s no data mining going on.
And I think that that’s really what it boils down to. It’s like an ethos. What feels good to you? Privacy and security, or not? Money? And this is reflected even today in the computer world, right. I don’t even really want to use the two companies, but there’s two ideas out there. One idea is, you the internet user are my customer and I resell your activities to other people. That’s my business model, I resell you, customer. You come to my website and I resell your activities. And I track everything that you do, and that tracking goes into kind of a creepy zone of really deep tracking.
Then there’s this other big company that’s like, we have our own ecosystem and we are 100% private and we would never sell your content to anybody, we’re all about privacy. And they’re making a lot of traction on that. Even though they are one big company, which is a little bit creepy, but whatever, at least they have a message that’s, we don’t believe in tracking you and making you my customer, and the other guy is like, we believe in that.
So if you were to map that onto open source and content, which is like, your content and everything that your business does is a way for me to make money in the future, I’m going to sell it, I’m going to do whatever; or your content is the most important thing in the world, you should own it. It’s ownership, it’s an asset that you wouldn’t give to a third party because you don’t know what they’re going to do with it. So, I think that’s kind of what it boils down to, it’s ethos.
And in the Drupal community, Dries himself, he has a deep ethos for wanting Drupal to remain true public software. True open web, never to be changed towards a commercialized, non open-source product. Which is even different than some of the other open-source CMS products that are out there that have a massive commercial side to them.
Even though we share the same exact licenses, GPL, one ethos says open web is the way to go, and I’m going to keep it open, free for everybody. The other one says, yeah, we’re open source, but, hey, build your big business on this, man, and sell as much as you can. Cause we're kind of about money. And they’ve done real good, they’ve done ok. And so it’s like, it comes down to that mindset.
And, again, here in the United States, that mindset is developing. I think in other parts of the world it’s more developed, you know, that people believe in privacy, they don’t understand this whole concept of, like, the user of my website is my product.
Tim Butara: Yeah. I’m from Europe, obviously, and I’m having a harder time understanding this proprietary, for-money approach to all of this. But, hey, one thing that I haven’t yet asked you about and I think that it’s high time that we spoke about that, is how does business composability or composability fit into this whole discussion of the open web? First of all, what even is business composability, and then secondly, how does it fit into the open web?
John Faber: Yeah, great question. I wrote a great blog post on this, about what does a true composable business or composable Drupal stack look like. And, ultimately, composability is built around the concept of decentralization, which is one of the four fundamentals of what open web really is.
In the past, you would centralize a lot of your stuff. You know, everything would be hosted on the same guy, everything was done on one service, or, that’s the meta. You can begin to go down that and say, on one piece of software. One piece of software did absolutely everything. It was the e-commerce package, it was the CRM, it was everything, right. And that made sense, right, cause we were evolving from an HTML world to a database driven world, and as we went through that evolution, we tried lots of different things and built lots of cool stuff and tried all sorts of things.
And that included platform stacks and software stacks, and they got bigger and bigger and bigger cause they were just doing more and more stuff. Then, proprietary came in there, started sort of nibbling away at it. Now, we are moving towards a period where people are understanding the value of open web and the value of decentralization.
With decentralization comes power, right? Because now, I don’t rely on one thing to do everything. The single point of failure now has been spread out. I’ve done a risk reduction analysis in my business and I said, you know, I don’t think I want everything running on this one guy. I want to have this guy doing this piece of my business, cause he’s awesome at it. And she’s going to do this part of business, cause she’s great at that. And I’m going to orchestrate or compose the exact solution for my business, because I want to be in control.
So composability is all about that. It’s all about decentralization. But then you can move even a little bit further, it’s about freedom and innovation. Because now I’m not stuck in one place. It’s hard to use concrete examples, but here’s one that’s sort of floating out there right now. A lot of CMSs served up everything, they served up the front end, the back end, the store, this, they did everything. And they did it relatively well. And huge ecosystems were built around supporting that paradigm which began to centralize everything onto platforms.
And now, what we’re seeing in the CMS world is that people are like, I don’t really like that so much, I think what I really like is the fact that Drupal is an API-first platform. It was built that way starting in 2018, which is a pretty long time ago now. And I think what I like better is I want my content management platform to be hosted over here and managed, cause it’s just a LAMP stack application, I’m just going to do that. But for my front end, man, I think I’m going to host that over here, I’m going to build that around this person, because they’re investing all of their time and energy into creating the best platform for that.
And then my CRM platform, I think I’m going to use this platform because it’s the best. I’m going to tie it in via API to my front end. And then you can say, wait a minute, man, I didn’t like this guy who’s doing this over here, I’m going to move them to this new guy that came, no impact to my business or my front end or my digital experience. But to me, I can innovate and I can move quickly.
So, composability is built around that, decentralization, and freedom and innovation. And we believe that if you knit together the right stuff, like, let’s say, Drupal for content management, and let’s say – I’m not sure what the best platform for e-commerce is, but let’s just say Shopify for e-commerce. And let’s say Salesforce for your forms. And let’s say HubSpot for your tracking. And all of that’s knitted together into one front end, in a decoupled fashion. The composable model allows you to do that very very nicely.
And I think people are just beginning to realize that it’s almost like going back instead of going forward, right, cause we kind of started with a bunch of decentralized services that became centralized services that are now going back down to a decentralized model, right. But composability in business is really what’s going to allow your business to innovate faster, move quicker in this environment, innovate.
And innovation is what’s going to make your business, or any business, stand out. If you’re locked in a platform, you are locked in a platform, what else can you say? Are you going to innovate really fast using a low-code/no-code platform like Wix? Yes, you will. Until you need something custom; then you won’t. Because it doesn’t do that.
Now you have to take everything that you’ve built and move it all over the place – it might’ve been better to look at this as a different model, right. Maybe you should look at putting your content into a content management platform, maybe using a separate service for something else and then learning Next.js would be my suggestion. So that’s why composability is important going forward, we need to innovate fast.
Tim Butara: Well, but also, if you have this composable, decentralized approach, yes, on the one hand, it takes care of, it helps encourage and support freedom and innovation; but on the other hand, it also limits the number of points of failure and the number of possibilities for all of this to be exploited. So, it simultaneously takes care of both freedom and innovation on the one hand, and of privacy and security on the other hand, which is basically the fourth pillar of the open web that we’ve yet to discuss.
John Faber: Exactly. And, you know, the other thing is, a lot of times, composability is built on open standards.
Tim Butara: Exactly, yeah.
John Faber: And so, there are platform providers – there’s a great one in Europe, love these guys – and they are one of the very first, that I’ve heard of, true open-source platforms. A Kubernetes built platform that’s 100% open source. If you have the skill, you can go in and do work on your platform. They’re not hiding anything from you on their platform. And so I heard about that and I was like, huh, that’s super interesting. But they will manage your platform for you. You don’t have to go in and do anything. It’s just that the keys are on your desk to do it if you want, right.
And that made me think; and then they gave me some other ideas around AI and content. Like, OpenAI and all these things that are out there right now are awesome, but every time you dump something into the little screen, you’re training it. You’re giving your content to train that AI model to be smarter for everybody. Which is kind of cool, it’s also kind of like, hm, I don’t know how much I like that. I like parts of it, I don’t like other parts of it, right.
On this open-source platform, you could put your own AI engine and decide, right, what’s going on. Say, my content that goes into this AI engine that I’m running is only for my website and for my purposes, but we use– you know what I mean? You can control even that element of it if you have a platform that’s truly open source – why not?
And so, on a composable level, with an open-source platform, now even on the platform level, if you’re at that technical level, you can begin to decide even down on the platform what you’re putting in. And I think that is just such a cool idea and example. And of course it’s coming out of Europe, right, cause you guys believe in privacy, you believe in these things. And that needs to evolve over towards our side of the pond a little bit more, right.
Cause you don’t see many platform guys, unless it’s like AWS, but even AWS has got a lot of magic in it that nobody knows about. There’s not a lot of people out there who would say, my platform is open source, if you’ve got the engineers to understand it, come on in, let’s work together as a team and make it better on our platform.
That to me is really cool, and I love that idea from composability, because composability is cool until you’re on that level, the actual platform level. Because sometimes those platforms are complicated and maybe they too, then, begin to try to do everything. We do this, we do that, we do everything. It’s like, hm, I don’t know, I kind of like the idea of going into a Kubernetes box and saying, I want dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, oh wait, I don’t even like that service anymore, take that out, put that one in; on that level, to me is very very cool. So, yeah.
Tim Butara: Yeah, definitely a lot of changes still going on. We’re seeing– definitely on your end as well, kind of an increasing focus and an increasing awareness of the importance of privacy. I believe that there’s stuff like phasing out of third-party cookies which is planned for 2024. It was planned for this year, but then, you know, obviously, we still need to– we mustn’t close the money tap yet, there’s still some money to get out of it.
John Faber: *laughing* Exactly.
Tim Butara: But definitely, I think that, because all of these ideas are becoming so strong also through conversations like this one that we’re having right now, John, I think it’ll become inevitable also for these types of companies that prioritize profit and prioritize proprietary stuff, it’ll be inevitable to also have an increased focus and an increased and an increased awareness of privacy. And probably – I mean, hopefully – we’re headed towards a more privacy-focused version of the web.
John Faber: I hope so. You know, the interesting part is that we do a lot of work really all over the place. And I see that in the US government right now, there is a lot of open source. Gatsby, Drupal, a lot of Drupal, a lot of like complicated Drupal, you know what I mean? And that means that there is an embrace on that level of open source and open web. How deep it goes, does it go all the way to the floor, down to the platform, I don’t know, but the fact that they’re using that is interesting to me. They don’t have to, the government can use whatever they want. They could sign a contract with a multibillion dollar agency to do that, but instead, they have chosen to use open source for government websites.
Now, here in San Francisco, they use open source for government and municipal websites; state websites are open source. So I think that that’s kind of a cool movement in the United States that government websites are moving towards this open web model, open data, privacy, all of these things that we’ve been talking about.
So I do think that movement’s on its way. To get into, like, a for-profit business, that model’s going to have to show that it makes a lot of money, or it’s just not as interesting in our world, in the United States; it’s a capitalistic country, they’re interested in that. But you don’t have to be that way, and Chapter Three has proven that. We’ve been in this business for 17 years and we have kept this exact ethos that I’m expressing on this call right now for 17 years. And we’re doing great. *laughing*
Tim Butara: So, if anybody wanted to get in touch with you or learn more about Chapter Three, get in touch with Chapter Three, where would you send them to?
John Faber: Well, you could send me email at email@example.com, so not the number 3, you’ve got to spell it all out. Or you can come to our website, www.chapterthree.com, and check out the work that we’re doing there. Or you can go and just start your journey on composable web and check out my favorite project of Chapter Three which is www.next-drupal.org, and that allows you to begin your composable journey now. And I’d be happy to talk to anybody about this stuff at any time.
Tim Butara: John, we’ll make sure to include all the links that you mentioned now in the show notes, as well as both of the articles, The Open Web Manifesto and the composable Drupal stack article that you mentioned, we’ll also include those, for anybody who wants to learn more. And, yeah, man, this has been a fantastic discussion, definitely we covered a lot of very important stuff, and thanks for joining us today, John.
John Faber: Thank you for inviting me, and I really look forward to our next discussion.
Tim Butara: Yup. As am I. We’ll have to plan it soon. Well, to our listeners, that’s all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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