Hippo is a Dutch Content Management System (CMS) company. Friday the 30th of October was the second Forge Friday in Hippo’s history and my first in depth encounter with this product. Hippo has gained popularity in Dutch government deals and Hippo powers some large governmental websites. This is a quite an achievement and although the product has great potential, from my perspective Hippo disappointed in both technical and customer perspective. I hope my gripes will be fixed in future releases so Hippo can continue its success.
Hippo is open source. This has a number of benefits, such as a lower risk of vendor lock in. Hippo’s commercial success is a result the Dutch government’s preference for open source software and Hippo’s professional, local and Dutch support, a unique combination.
For the developer open source projects have the benefit of community support. Obvious examples such as Apache and a CMS like WordPress show that open source can lead to solid products with tremendous support (books, articles, plugins, forums).
Alas, Hippo still has a fairly small community. Their mailing list is mostly used by it’s own employees. The amount of plugins is small and mostly created as spin off from commercial projects. Perhaps Java is one of the limiting factors because hosting Java is expensive, which prevents individual developers to use Hippo for their own blog or website (a limitation WordPress or Joomla don’t have). Without a large community, customers would still have only Hippo to maintain their code because their knowledge of the system is not free.
The user interface is another Achilles’ heel. The competition is also appalling in this respect (Tridion, Sharepoint), but user experience is on the rise because of it’s high competitive value. WordPress, for example has a large amount of goodwill simply because of the good user interface for editing content.
However, it’s not just the user interface, it’s also the type of information supplied. A professional content editor would like to know how people rate the content, where it’s used, how often is it read, what content is obsolete etc. Hippo does not provide this and thus cannot be used to share knowledge and be the single content repository for the customer. There is great opportunity here to beat systems like Sharepoint.
Writing plug ins
The documentation for contributing to Hippo is quite minimalistic. There is one tutorial, which didn’t work when I tried it because it was based on an old version. There are other weird things about Hippo’s documentation. The site contains quite a few dead links, not very reassuring. An even weirder issue is that the site changes while you’re reading it. The tutorial I read on Friday morning was replaces by a tutorial on Friday afternoon. It’s like the site is in constant motion and you never know when a page might disappear. It seems like testing is not part of Hippo’s publishing process and the CMS itself doesn’t have functionality to check dead links on the site.
Creating add-ons means you’re extending the CMS, which means you cannot drop in your plugin into a running CMS, you need to bundle it with the application, in essence making the add-on an integral part of the CMS. Any change in the internal API or storage system will result in rewriting add-ons. Thus the learning curve for add-ons is steep because you have to know the entire architecture of Hippo before creating them. I would prefer a plugin architecture that makes it easy to drop in functionality and creates visible results quickly.
If you want community contributions, plugins should be easy to create, loosely coupled to the underlying architecture and easy to exchange and install. Google and Yahoo have created such great APIs that developer will use them just because they’re fun and easy. And although a good plugin architecture is always hard to master, Eclipse has great tooling and support for writing plugins.
Hippo has a great crew and it’s organizational structure (people, vibe) resembles a company like TomTom. I’m convinced Hippo can create great products and service. With this Forge Friday it has made a serious attempt to enlarge the developer community. But it needs to step up its effort if it wants a real community and a solid product. Open source without a community is just as useless as closed source products because the customer still depends on the vendor for maintenance. And a CMS without serious tools for managing content and its meta data is not worthy of managing any other content than pages on a website.
My tips for Hippo:
- Create a plugin architecture that makes it fun and easy to add functionality to Hippo.
- Make testing an integral part of the CMS (such as an automatic dead links checker)
- In future versions build the user interface of the CMS from the ground up with the content editor in mind. Make it the slickest tool to inspect, report on and publish company content (hire an information specialist).