We’re delighted to have London-based web designer Piers Aitman offer his views on the future of Joomla!

The classical wisdom when choosing a CMS is that WordPress, the monolithic market leader, is great for simple sites, while the two other open-source CMSs with the biggest market share, Joomla! and Drupal, are much better at handling more sophisticated content and functionality, with the trade-off that they are less user-friendly for the site administrator.

Recently, Drupal has had a dramatic transformation, several years in the making, involving a complete rewrite of the codebase that makes it more developer-friendly, but that may restrict it to higher end websites.

Joomla! has been rather quieter in recent times, but after visiting JoomlaDay in London, I think its subtle evolution might just put it in a great place for the future.

I’d like to share 5 and a half new features that show Joomla is still a great option for developing websites. They reveal that the Joomla! team have been listening to their community, and importantly, the administrators of Joomla! sites.

Computer code on a screen

1. Custom fields

This is the big news in the recent Joomla 3.7 release. Often, we’d like to add specific types of data to specific types of content. For example, I run a site for a school where the staff members upload their department, qualifications, class name and date joined. I want that data stored properly in individual fields, which are then shown in a specific style on the website.

The ability to do this easily and natively has been in Drupal for years and was for me its biggest selling point. Until now, if you wanted to customise content in Joomla you would have to use a third party extension. This adds complexity for the site administrator, and maybe many unnecessary features and code for the Joomla installation.

The new Custom Fields are a breeze. You can create new generic fields of many types (text,select, image, date, etc), group them together, and then apply them to specific article categories or contacts. When the administrator is editing an article, the groups show up in a very clear and user-friendly way in the tabs.

Presentation has been thought about too. Custom fields can be assigned CSS classes, and their display order can be changed easily without any template overrides. If that’s not enough, you can override the field’s individual template, or access the field data in the jcfields object to do whatever you want (see docs.joomla.org/J3.x:Adding_custom_fields/Overrides/en).

Overall it’s a massive boost for Joomla! that builds great flexibility into how you can structure your content.

2. Add an article directly into the menu

The first of several usability improvements in Joomla 3.7 is the ability to create an article and a menu item for it at the same time. For some people, the way articles and menus are structured seems a little complicated, and this change addresses the common situation when an article is intended as a page, and should go directly into the site.

To do this, go to Menus and Add New Menu Item, which should be of the form Single Article.

From here you can Create the Article, enter the content, save it, then save the Menu Item. A gif of the process can be seen here.

A cup of coffee next to a computer screen

3. What’s in a menu?

Menu items are the way Joomla builds up the display of multiple items of content. But sometimes you might want to have these blocks on your website, but not have them show up in a menu.

In the past, users sometimes resorted to creating a menu in the backend that is not shown publicly, just to quickly add some URLs. The new Joomla! has the simple answer to this odd situation, to have the option to show or hide a Menu item.

The best solutions are usually the simple ones, and that is a quick win, and a big improvement in the area some people think is Joomla!’s biggest flaw.

4. Customise what shows in the backend and text editor

In Joomla 3.7 you can customise the admin interface completely with the Backend Menu Manager.

This means you can change (and minimise!) what is shown on the admin menu to different levels of user. You can even rename menu items, for example you could change ‘AcyMailing’ to ‘Emails’, following Steve Krug’s usability mantra, ‘Don’t Make Me Think!’.

Furthermore, the text editor is now far more configurable. You can customise exactly what buttons and options appear to which levels of user.

This is great on two levels – firstly, making life simpler for the user, removing unnecessary options, streamlining the interface; secondly, it means you can retain more control over presentation, for example you could stop users from changing the colour of their text – something your design team will be forever grateful for.

Computer code on a screen

5. Frontend editing with Ark Extensions

The public are starting to get used to the new generation of front-end website builders where content is edited directly on the web page, and can be dragged and dropped to add or rearrange it.

Joomla can keep up with the Joneses, thanks to a huge amount of work done by Ark Extensions, who provide this functionality for Joomla, in free and paid for extensions that enable on-page editing, menu management and an improved media manager, to enhance the experience for site admins.

It may not be appropriate for every kind of site you build, but it’s great to be able to offer your clients the choice.

5-and-a-half. Joomla 4 is coming, and soon…

At JoomlaDay, George Wilson, the Release Lead developer, ran through several major improvements for Joomla! 4, which is pencilled in for release early 2018.

The first great thing to note is that it’s not a Drupal-style rewrite. You will be able to upgrade seamlessly from within Joomla!, and plugins and extensions will require minimal updating to retain compatibility.

The main cheer of the day went up when George announced that Joomla!’s media manager is being overhauled, to improve usability and include image manipulation, responsive images, and also ajax to minimise page reloads. For my clients, ease of use when handling images is maybe their number one issue, so this is really welcome.

In further news, the installation process has been boiled down to a ‘1-2-3’ style process with minimal complication, comparing favourably with WordPress’s ‘famous 5 minute install’.

Accessibility is a growing issue, and the backend will be AA compliant.

CSS Grid, Bootstrap 4, support for Web Services, Web Components and Shadow DOM is coming too.

In summary, I’m impressed with the way Joomla! has moved with the times, addressed many of its shortcomings, and is looking to the future.

For a full feature list, go to www.joomla.org/3.

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