This week, Website Planet’s Miguel Amado had the opportunity to talk with Brian Teeman, the Co-founder of Joomla! and OpenSourceMatters Inc. The interview covers many subjects like the evolution and importance of the internet, digital presence, web hosting, online accessibility and more.
Saying that the internet and the tech environment is dynamic is an understatement. 15 years ago, you co-created Joomla. Were you more or less enthusiastic about the internet and its possibilities that you are now?
It’s a really good question to start with. I think 15 years ago the internet was part of most people’s lives but not to the same extent that it is now. If you think about it, it was dial-up and you’d make more conscious efforts to go online, while today you are just online.
When we were starting Joomla, we were still using IRC to chat and an occasional real telephone call. Skype had just about started but it was doing only one-to-one. I didn’t even have a webcam, because I don’t think there was a need for one.
There are positive and negative points for the full-time internet connection. Do you believe is it positive for us – have we learned to use the internet properly or are we still struggling?
I don’t know whose quote it is, but it is a good one: this cellphone has access to the entire sum of human knowledge – but what you do with the knowledge is very different. I’m still very conscious that access to the internet is not universal. The access I have in England is very different from somewhere in the Amazon rainforest. The opportunity it gives you is different.
Here in England, all government services have pretty much moved online. But even in England, a large percentage of people don’t have any access at all, or free access, or usable access, or don’t know what to do. So, they are actually missing out an opportunity and are disadvantaged.
I think the United Nations said a few years ago that internet access should be a global human right and it sounded a bit silly when they said that, to be honest with you. Doesn’t sound silly now.
Security and protecting your data are hot topics in tech right now. Do you believe we, as individuals, can build up a wall and hold on to our privacy or did we reach a point of no return?
I am going to ask you a different question: why do you want to protect your privacy? If I am sitting in front of my computer and type on Google “how do I put a video on my website”. Because it knows it’s me, Joomla results will be on the first page. That’s brilliant: I am getting a better-quality service because it has access to my data.
I am quite happy that my data is open and, in fact, I’d be happier if more things were open than right now. I think it is a mistake to think you can protect your data and to forget all the things you get when you share your data.
If we are talking about authoritarian governments, they would exert that type of control and monitoring anyway, just like in East Germany during the communist era – neighbors were spying on neighbors and recording, it just wasn’t digital. It’s not anything new for oppressive regimes to do that.
For me, the worries come to the manipulation of data. When you think you are interviewing Brian Teeman, but you are in fact interviewing a deep fake, that’s a problem.
When anything new happens, there will always be disadvantages. But I’ve always believed in what I call “radical transparency”, when everything’s open. As far as I am concerned, this is a private conversation between you and me, but you are recording. You could edit it or do anything with it. I know that you are recording because Zoom is telling me, but you could be recording in another way, so it’s about trust as well.
I found it interesting that you tackled the necessity of building websites that are accessible to everyone. Do you see improvements in that area, or the importance of that is still overlooked by website owners and designers?
It is still a big problem, and web designers and website builders have to address it urgently. There’s a quote that disability is the one thing that we all will face at one point in our life, whether temporarily or permanently. It affects everybody, even though we forget about it.
I wrote on my blog that Ethan Marcotte is kind of responsible for responsive web design. We should not be looking now for responsive, but for responsible web design. In other words, you should build it once and it should work for everybody, whatever their situation is.
It means making something that can be accessed through a keyboard, a mouse or a screen reader as well as with your eyes… We’ve got a long way to go on that, but tools like Joomla can lead the way.
If, by default, Joomla creates a web site that is accessible, that will have a massive impact, we’d not need to educate the web designer – it’d be just happening. If we do something really inaccessible by default, you’ve got to educate them why it’s not good. . And if you’ve got to educate them to change, it’s not going to happen.
Talking about open source, I believe that many challenges must be faced when you choose that path. In your experience, what are the toughest ones to overcome (funding, creating a community…)?
Definitely, it is true to say that today is very different to 15 years ago. Open source was not the default for the internet 15 years ago, but the exception – you needed to make a conscious decision to be open-source or proprietary.
Today, it’s kind of default that, if you are doing something on the internet, it will be open someway. I think today there’s less of the community-type open source from 15 years ago, which Joomla still tries to be.
The VLC media player is 20 years-old and it’s backed by a foundation, but is fundamentally a community project. An equivalent project starting today would probably start off with a view like that: this is a company, you can use our code, but we are the ones in charge of developing it. There’s less of a social-political reason for being open source today than 15 years ago.
Recently, you announced on your blog that you migrated your websites to ScalaHosting and provided a series of reasons. Do you have any advice for someone that doesn’t have a large knowledge base about what they should search for when choosing a hosting company?
All I can really say is: take advice from colleagues and friends about what they use and, more importantly, listen to what are the problems. You’ll have to figure out if they are important to you and make a decision by yourself. Some people want telephone support. Personally, I would never pick up a telephone for that, so I think it doesn’t matter, for example.
What I see quite often in Joomla forums and I think it’s the most important thing: somebody reports a problem with a Joomla website, but that is actually related with the hosting configuration. They say that the host told them it won’t change that. So, there’s only one thing you can do there – you can move.
There’s plenty of hosts you can move to, but the response we usually get is: “I can’t move”. What they mean is: “I’ve paid for a year and I still have got four months left”. But if they don’t move now, it’s going to cost them not only money, but time and energy trying to work around the problems!
In my case, with ScalaHosting I’ve moved a couple of sites that were fairly low traffic just to go through the process of what it was like working with their system, servers and support. I’ve found it to be an excellent experience, so I’ve moved all my stuff to them.
One of the differentiators about the hosting companies is the control panel that they use. I’ve never been a fan of cPanel, because it has just got too much, and I don’t want to be hunting through a hundred options to find what I want.
ScalaHosting has their own hosting panel, called SPanel, which is super quick and obvious to use. Even in the few months I’ve been using it, I’ve seen people making suggestions for improvements and they’ve been implementing them, which is always good to hear. It’s not something a hosting company can do when they are not in control of the software.
The importance of having a digital presence was clear in 2020. But only creating a social media profile or building a website and leaving it without any updates is not good business. What are the main points that you would suggest to small entrepreneurs when they are creating a website, for example?
You have to understand that when I’m looking for something, using Google, it’s going to push me in a direction. So, obviously you need to get a search presence. Then, when I find you, I want my information now.
What do I mean by that: I was looking at a video creation software the other day at 11 pm. It was not in the company’s working hours and the site presented a “Contact us for pricing” message. What use is that?
The company would probably argue that it lets them give a personal touch. That’s true but the difference between a digital presence and a physical store is that it is open 24 hours a day, and people expect to use it 24 hours a day.
The information should all be there. Even though it might be an interesting service, I had no idea, and I had to send them an email. They’ve lost me at that point: I’d just click another service, since there’s plenty of other suppliers.
The other thing is social media. People use Hootsuite or Buffer to schedule posts and have a regular flow of posts. They are pushing out their information automatically, but they are not engaging and not being social – and it’s called social media. What good is that?
If you have a company, you wouldn’t dream of visiting your clients dressing inappropriately. The same must go for your digital presence, because it represents you and your company as much as your physical appearance or your store’s appearance.