Joomla 3.0 review: Making way for mobile

The open-source content-management system has been optimized to deliver content to mobile devices. We take a close look at this latest version.

The release of Joomla 3.0 on September 27 not only marks a new milestone for the seven-year-old open-source (and free) content management system, it also establishes a new goal for Joomla: the mobile platform.

It would be unfair to characterize Joomla 3.0's changes as being solely geared towards mobile-friendly websites, but there's no denying that delivering content for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones influenced many of the changes for this update -- an influence that can be felt throughout the design and implementation of this version.

[Related story: Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress]

Bootstrapping it

Under the hood, many of the features behind Joomla's new look and feel come from the project's adoption of Twitter Bootstrap, a framework of CSS and HTML design templates that works to unify typography, forms, buttons and other components.

Joomla 3.0
The opening screen of a Joomla-based website, with content.

The reliance on Bootstrap was not done just to make the back-end interface look pretty on mobile (though it helps). A more important reason for the move was to help wrangle the 10,000-plus extensions that are available within the Joomla ecosystem. The Bootstrap model within Joomla 3.0 is pervasive throughout the back and front ends of the CMS, and any extension developer who is putting together an add-on for Joomla will be able to use the same components as all other extension developers.

Unification is critical to how the new Joomla performs on any platform, not just mobile, according to Paul Orwig, president of Open Source Matters, a support organization for the Joomla project, and former member of Joomla's leadership team.

In the past, that was not always a given, Orwig explains, particularly for extensions that did work outside of the core Joomla functionality, such as e-commerce. Since Joomla's core software had no e-commerce tools, any given developer of an e-commerce extension would feel free to approach the administrative and front ends of their tool in whatever way they wanted. This led to quite a bit of confusion for admins trying to evaluate the features of each extension.

"Bootstrap is a standard that's adopted a huge variety of components, which will make developers' lives a lot easier," Orwig says.

End-users visiting a Joomla-based site should find more consistency in site elements, too. A desktop or mobile browser interface will be displayed differently to conform to screen size, but content and control elements will still be present on any platform. This is known as responsive design, a concept that many websites are embracing in order to maintain a consistent cross-platform user experience.

And responsive design is baked all the way in -- even the back-end administrative pages are set to respond.

Of course, the introduction of Bootstrap means that the Joomla developer community will need to adjust to the new standard. But there should not be too much friction, since Bootstrap integration is hardly a surprise, having been well publicized since early 2012. Plus, given the two-birds-with-one-stone elegance of Bootstrap for standards-based and flexible-platform development, early indications are that this approach is being welcomed by the community at large.

Shifting to mobile isn't Joomla 3.0's only preparation for the future. The new release also includes support for the open-source PostgreSQL database, a third addition to the databases supported by Joomla, alongside MySQL and Microsoft SQL. Orwig says this was done to emphasize Joomla's database independence, but PostgreSQL adoption has picked up a bit among open-source projects of late, as many community members worry about Oracle's ultimate plans for MySQL. There is no hard evidence justifying the community's collective heebie-jeebies, but that hasn't stopped some players from hedging their bets with PostgreSQL, too.

Other shiny new features include the capability to copy a template, as well as installing language packages directly from the Extension Manager.

When the new features and changes under the hood are all put together, how does it all look and respond? In this review, I will examine how Joomla 3.0 stacks up as a cutting-edge CMS.

Installation

Installing Joomla is a essentially a three-stage process: prepare a database in MySQL (or one of the other databases), download and uncompress the files for the CMS into a separate directory within your Web server's folders, then step through a Web-based installation that completes the job.

For this article, I used a straightforward LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) server, as plain vanilla as I could create on an openSUSE 12.2 machine. Specifically, I installed Apache 2, MySQL 5.5 and PHP 5; a MySQL module for PHP was also installed. It is important to have FTP server software installed on the same machine, since Joomla needs FTP to upload and install add-ons such as plug-ins, extensions and themes.

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