WordPress and How I Learned to Love Open Source

I fall into the category of people who are impressed by price tags. That is to say; if something seems to cost too little, its perceived value will inevitably plummet. So when I first started to research blogging and CMS platforms I was originally attracted to Movable Type and, later, to Expression Engine. It was suggested that I explore some of the open source software such as Drupal, WordPress, and b2evolution but I dismissed them because they were “free”. After all, you get what you pay for.

Ultimately I plunked down my money on Expression Engine. It was a neat and glossy package with features that were just what I thought I was looking for. All of the showcased websites were incredibly well designed and there were dozens that I wanted to use as models for my own site. What I was to find, after much research and toil, was that Expression Engine wasn’t easy for me to use. First of all, their polished and professional websites were all custom designed. They did have a limited supply of templates from which to choose but none of them seemed to fit my needs and I didn’t have the skill to customize them.

Months of frustration followed. My, very patient brother-in-law, a computer programmer, did his best to help me put together a website with Expressio Engine but, ultimately, it never got to the point where he could ‘turn over the keys’ so that I could drive the damn thing. Taking this analogy to its sad conclusion, I was stuck with a half-built wreck, up on blocks, taking up most of the driveway.

Then along came WordPress. What changed my mind about this “free” software? Nothing at first. I just figured that I had squandered too much money on Expression Engine and I didn’t want to increase my costs. I also wanted a platform that I could experiment with without calling my brother-in-law for every little thing.

I soon learned to appreciate the unending array of templates and all of the work-saving plugins. The interface was intuitive and I soon found that I could manage the whole process on my own. I attribute the extent of my compatibility with WordPress to its open source nature. Programmers have contributed plugins, not because of a market survey or a central design plan, but because a particular plugin was useful to them. In the open source system, once created, that plugin became available to all comers.

These plugin projects were not ‘back-burnered’ for more pressing concerns because the folks writing the programs were creating them for themselves and, because of the diverse interests and needs of the programmers, the odds were good that a small fraction of their needs would match mine. Odds were even better that their needs would be close enough to mine that minor tweaks to their source code (a skill with which I am determined to gain some competency) would get me exactly what I wanted.

All of this talk about ‘source code’ and ‘free software’ is a significant paradigm shift for a confirmed plug n’ play guy like myself. I’ve always been more interested in using the computer and its related software as tools rather than in making the tools from scratch. What has changed my mind is the sense of community than the various open source projects have engendered. That “wouldn’t it be nice if I had a program that could….” thought that would sometimes creep into my mind used to be immediately quashed by the realization that I didn’t have the skills or the resources to make it happen.

Now I know that other people are having similar thoughts and, with the collective skill set of thousands of people, some of the “wouldn’t it be nice” stuff gets done. Of course it’s not always pretty and it’s not always right, but that’s part of the process. This is another aspect of the paradigm shift. It doesn’t always have to be right. This is not due to a “so what do you expect, it’s free” attitude. This is more closely related to the feeling of being involved in the creation and watching something get better and better.

I am enjoying this new perspective and, like the proverbial pebble in the lake, it has been rippling out to encompass other aspects of my life both on and off the computer. I have not only tricked out my Firefox browser with toolbars and extensions to make my life easier, I have also reconfigured my kitchen with inspiration from the HGTV community. Potential new projects include Linux and a home office makeover.

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