Hands on: Joomla tries a CMS for non-developers

Joomla.com offers a wide variety of site-building options -- perhaps more than unskilled users can handle.

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WordPress has become a popular content management system (CMS) for both individuals and businesses -- and one of the reasons it got that way was because it offered a free, online version that was comfortable for less sophisticated users. Bloggers could start with the relatively easy-to-understand WordPress.com free hosted system and then, if they wanted to, graduate to their own domain (and access a wider variety of tools) via WordPress.org.

Joomla, a well-known open-source CMS, appears to be trying the same strategy. It just came out with Joomla.com, which offers free hosted sites for people who have no desire -- or who don't yet have the skillset -- to start out with the more complex product.

I decided to give Joomla.com a try. I'm probably the perfect customer for the new online system -- while I have some knowledge of HTML, have created a few very basic websites, and learned to make my way around several different content management systems as a user, that's about the limits of my coding expertise.

My original intention was to do a fairly full review, but I soon saw that -- at least, within the confines of this blog-- it wasn't going to happen. Joomla.com may be a simplified form of Joomla, but it is still definitely for those who know what they're doing. I hadn't previously worked with Joomla myself (we did run a review of it a couple of years ago ), but it has always been geared toward serious site developers. Joomla.com offers enough training wheels so that a determined beginner can put together a reasonably well-built site, but it is still not something that can be done off-the-cuff.

Starting a new Joomla site is simple enough -- you type in the name of your site (which will appear as sitename.joomla.com), an email address and a password, and you're in. You're immediately shown your new site: Your chosen name is on top, and there is pre-served content that offers basic explanations of what to do next, along with links to tutorials and forums.

opening blog

As soon as you register the name of your site, you are presented with a live sample page, together with some helpful advice.

After that, it's pretty much up to you. Joomla.com is in its infancy, so there are only a handful of templates to choose from that mostly differ in background color. I think it is safe to assume that this will change fairly quickly as Joomla personnel and fans contribute more templates for beginners to choose from.

The main user dashboard offers an extremely basic video and access to the really important area: the Control Panel (labeled Admin on the dashboard), where you add and manage blog entries, make changes to the interface, etc. Once you start digging in, it becomes fairly clear that Joomla.com is a robust product that is probably a good learning place for potential developers, but may frighten away users who simply want to put together a reasonably workable site.

Joomla administration control panel

Joomla.com offers a wide array of features and tools; excellent for experienced developers but possibly overwhelming for newcomers.

Part of the issue may be in its wide array of controls and features, most of which are immediately available. When dealing with novice site builders, there are a number of initial features that should be front and center so that beginners can access them easily and immediately. For example, most people won't want a new site to be public until they're ready -- but it isn't immediately obvious how to do that. It took some exploration until I discovered where to go (Global Configuration/Site Settings/Site Offline).

And then there are those features that have several different methods of follow-through. For instance, take the fairly common task of including an image within a blog entry. On my first try, I found that Joomla.com offered several places to go within the blog interface.

The first method I tried was to click on the image icon in the top menu of the editing window. In most interfaces, that would lead to a quick way to insert an image into the blog -- but the pop-up box only offered to let me enter an URL for an image source, along with a description and dimensions. There was no obvious way to upload an image.

Next, I tried a tab above the workspace labeled "Images and links." This, I discovered, is where you can upload an "Intro Image," a "Full article image" or up to three linked images. I was able to uploading the image there, and then copied the resulting URL and pasted that into my blog. However, I knew that there had to be an easier way.

joomla edit image

The Editor button labeled Image (when found) offered the tools for inserting a new image into a blog entry.

There was. At the very bottom of the workspace there are several "Editor buttons" (hidden if your window isn't large enough), one of which is labeled Image. This led directly to my image library, allowing me to upload and insert an image.

So what about the Help menu? Unfortunately, while Joomla has -- not surprisingly for a well-known open-source product -- a very extensive set of support resources, most of them are currently geared toward the existing Joomla application. Users of Joomla.com are, for now, pretty much limited to the Help function accessed from a button on the right corner of the interface, and which offers rudimentary instructions along with some screenshots. Note to Joomla: A basic search engine would be a huge help here.

Bottom line

WordPress.com doesn't have much to worry about just yet. While Joomla.com has a great deal of potential, it is still too complex for most less-skilled users who want to build a reasonably attractive and useful site, while developers are going to go straight to Joomla.org.

Part of the issue, of course, is that WordPress started as a relatively simple blogging platform and came to the table with some idea of how to deal with non-developers. It's also had several years to put together an extensive toolkit of templates and other aids.

Although there is one thing that users may want to note: While WordPress places advertising on its WordPress.com blogs, Joomla.com does not. For some, this alone may be enough incentive to give the new service a try.

And Joomla.com is hardly out of the cradle. At the very least, even if it doesn't succeed in attracting day-to-day-bloggers and site builders, it could become an excellent place for potential Joomla developers to learn their craft.

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