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WebKnowHow Interviews

An Interview with
Alex MacCaw, 16, Author of Ruby on Rails CMS Eribium

April 18, 2006

A new content management system (CMS), built with Ruby on Rails and popular JavaScript libraries, has been declared alpha and is now available for download at http://www.eribium.org.  It uses programming languages, typically not associated with CMSs; but this is not the only unusual thing about Eribium.  The show stealer is the fact that 16 year old Alex MacCaw, with relatively little programming experience, was able to create in less than a month a working, full-featured CMS, using Ruby on Rails.

A live demo of the CMS is available on the official Eribium page.  Even at this early stage of development it works pretty well .  The demo includes tagging capabilities, various presentation templates, syndication, spell checker, and a myriad of features one would expect to see in a simple CMS or a blogging platform. Eribium was recently accepted as a Rubyforge.org project.

We contacted Mr. MacCaw to ask him several questions about Eribium and web development in general.

DevStart: On the Eribium website you say you were using PHP and then you switched to RoR.  What is your background in PHP and how did that help you to get started with Ruby?  

Alex MacCaw: I had been using PHP for a while before becoming fairly competent. I did attempt an Ajaxified CMS in PHP, mainly to see how Ajax would impact the user interface. However I found that the code I wrote tended to look 'hacked' out, had no structure, and must have been unfathomable to anyone looking at it. I also found that I was repeating myself, just spending time on the boring, simple bits while not enough on the creative parts. I'd heard good things about Rails but hadn't really inquired about it, not wanting to have to learn another language. After I read some of the tutorials, and seen the screencasts, I decided to give it a shot. In fact I came to Rails without knowing any Ruby, and had to learn it as I went along. It was then I realized I loved Ruby on Rails, and there was no turning back.  

DevStart: I read on a certain blog that making your own CMS will become fashionable, because it is easy now, with Prototype and other JS libraries providing the right tools.  At the same time, the example provided was a far cry from a functioning system.  Is it really easy to create a CMS?  

A.M.: Content management systems are inherently complex applications, having to deal with a large variety of tasks. Of course brilliant libraries such as Prototype and Script.aculo.us make this much easier, and of course Rails, managing the backend, helps immensely. But there's a catch, the hardest part of creating a CMS is usability. Anyone can create flashy effects, but if users aren't at ease working with it, then you've lost a key factor contributing to your project's success.  

DevStart: What do you think is the future of the personal (and small business) website?  Will people turn to creating their web presence by themselves (via CMSs), or will the vast majority still look towards ready-made services like Google Pages?  

A.M.: There will always be services, such as Google Pages, that will be popular. However these only target a specific band of users, probably not commercial ones. There will always be a place for personal and, as you say, small business websites and I can't see services taking over from that.  

DevStart: How did you come up with the idea to create Eribium? Have you used other CMSs?  

A.M.: I've used a few PHP CMS, and found some had more than enough features, but were far too complicated. Also, as far as I know, there were no major CMS for Rails, only blogging applications such as Typo. I realized that people don't like to change the way they work, so if there's going to be change, the change has to be as seamless as possible. This is achieved by intuitive designing, going the extra mile. Another goal I had was to not limit the user with how they design their website. I've seen template creating guides dozens of pages long. A user shouldn't need to know half a textbook just to create a template, and the template shouldn't have to conform to the CMS. They shouldn't have to be restricted to 3 columns or in any other way. First time users shouldn't have to be bombarded with options and configurations, rather they should feel at ease using the CMS, intuitively learning it as they go along. Advanced options and configurations should be available, but not to the extent that they confuse the user and get in the way. Of course a CMS can't be targeted at every user, that's why there's such a multitude of competing CMSs. Trying to be ideal for everyone can lead to satiating a few while not making anyone really happy. A KISS-compliant CMS, such as Eribium, that is focused towards the layman could do a lot to further Ruby on Rails adoption.  

DevStart: Do you think Eribium will attract a large community?  Will you look for code contributors, or do you think you can finish it by yourself?  

A.M.: I've already had a couple of people offer their services, which is great. Eribium is definitely a work in progress and, if it is to be widely adopted, needs a community effort. Lots of people have offered to translate it, and this is being implemented at the moment, along with a whole host of other features. I'm eager for code-contributors, there's great strength in numbers. Within the community resides the power of open source, and that's why open source projects provide such viable alternatives to commercial ones. In other words, your community is really important and I hope Eribium will attract a large one.  

DevStart: What are your aspirations for the future?  

In the short term future, I've got major school exams to contend with, being so young. After that I'm looking for work experience in the summer holidays. I'm not really sure what I'll read at university, but at the moment I'm thinking Computer-Science, though having said that I'm also interested in Classics and English. 



 A collage of Eribium screenshots



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