Telligent Systems released Graffiti CMS 1.0 in February 2008 accompanied by a good deal of fanfare. It looked as though the .NET community’s hopes for a flexible, extensible, and affordable CMS solution had finally been answered -- and, as might have been expected, the community responded in droves. Graffiti-based sites sprung up like dandelions after a spring shower. Web companies bought licenses and started offering Graffiti-based CMS to their clients. Designers started cranking out themes. Developers started doing some really interesting things with Chalk (a templating language based on NVelocity). Graffiti was quickly developing a loyal and active fan base.
Even before the end of 2008, the wheels started coming off the Graffiti bandwagon.
Perhaps the first sign of trouble was the lack of good, solid, complete documentation. I’ll admit, it’s fairly common to see teams skimp on the docs in the rush to get that 1.0 RTM out the door. But even today, fifteen months hence, the documentation remains very sparse, especially that of developer-facing features like Chalk.
Poor product documentation often has insidious effects that can extend to every part of a project, and Graffiti was no different. Product forums soon became clogged with questions that could (and should) have been answered by RTFM. Along with this came the demand for new features that inevitably accompanies a successful launch. This, combined with a woefully understaffed support team, led to a deadly spiral in which developers and PMs were spending their days answering newbie questions and coming up with workarounds instead of working the project. Pleas for help were ignored, in hopes that someone from the still-nascent community might step up. Questions went unanswered for days. Users became frustrated. The Graffiti CMS Marketplace, which was touted as a “one-stop shop for widgets, add-ons, and lots of other great themes,” never got off the ground. What was originally intended as a meeting place where a vibrant community could exchange ideas began to resemble a great whistling electronic void.
Naturally, users started to openly question Telligent’s commitment to Graffiti. As often happens in these cases, these inquiries were met with assurances that the company was “100% behind the project,” along with promises of “awesome new features” that were “right around the corner.”
A Stack of IOUs
Telligent’s releases of Graffiti 1.1 in June and 1.2 in December did little to assuage what had now become a palpable sense of frustration among an increasingly disillusioned user base. These amounted to little more than maintenance patches. That mysterious list of “awesome new features” soon started looking like a stack of IOUs, and it appeared more and more that the company wasn’t prepared to pay up anytime soon.
Near the end of 2008, Telligent -- perhaps in an effort to ameliorate the disappointment accompanying the 1.2 release, while tamping down rumors that Graffiti was soon to become an orphaned product -- posted a product roadmap on the Graffiti CMS blog, offering a detailed outline of their development plans. Graffiti 2.0 would be released by early Q2 2009, in which they would implement a slew of oft-promised, long-delayed features. This would be followed by Graffiti 2.5 in early Q3, and Graffiti 3.0 in early Q4. Along with all of this came promises of deep-level architecture enhancements that would streamline development going forward, improved documentation for both end-users and developers, and a stronger presence in the support forums.
To the community, this was very welcome news indeed. Telligent was publicly and enthusiastically reaffirming their commitment to Graffiti -- with details, and in writing. Those of us who had thrown in our lot with Graffiti breathed a collective sigh of relief; It looked to all of us as though the company was stepping up to the plate, for real this time.
The First Shoe Falls
A few weeks later, the roadmap was pulled from the Graffiti site without explanation. It didn’t take long before the reason for doing so became painfully apparent.
On February 13 2009, Telligent laid off a whole bunch of really smart people. (Among them was Terri Morton, the Product Manager of Graffiti and the company’s most dedicated Graffiti cheerleader.) Of course, given the current economic climate, I certainly can’t fault Telligent for doing what had to be done. Many companies are reallocating resources right now in an effort to focus on core product development. For Telligent, Graffiti is not a core product.
And then… nothing. No announcements. No new roadmap. No news of any kind. Nothing but chirping crickets, for eight long weeks.
On April 13, Telligent President Rob Howard finally broke the silence with a blog post entitled “What is the future of Graffiti?” In this post, once again, he states in part:
…I do want to re-affirm Telligent's plan to continue investing in Graffiti. Active development will pick back up again shortly with a release of Graffiti 2.0 in early summer.
Mr. Howard will have to excuse us for the heaping dose of skepticism with which his announcement has been greeted.
Perhaps Telligent truly was (as Mr. Howard and others claim) caught off guard by the initial success of Graffiti. Maybe they misjudged the level of dedication and resources it would take to meet the demand for new features. Maybe that $20 million in VC money from Intel came with a lot more strings than they realized.
Ultimately, as far as Graffiti’s users are concerned, I’m not sure it really matters why the ball got dropped, just that it did get dropped. More than once. There’s absolutely no denying that.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Understandably, a lot of early Graffiti adopters aren’t waiting around for the other shoe to fall. Many have started actively seeking alternatives. One high-profile bolter, Microsoft MVP Curt Christianson, has even written a Graffiti to BlogML Exporter, which makes the transition from Graffiti to a competing product all the easier.
I say, not so fast. I think I may have a better idea.
On April 20, I left the following comment to Rob Howard’s post:
Perhaps it's time to consider open-sourcing Graffiti. That's be a much better alternative to letting it die a slow death, which is what appears to be happening.
This idea was quickly seconded by a few other users. About a week later Scott Watermasysk, Telligent’s VP of Software Development, answered:
OSS'ing is something we did consider, but for now we believe keeping the development in house is a better option for moving forward.
We are rethinking some parts of our roadmap around Graffiti to make sure we can give it the best chance of thriving. We understand this causes concern and frustration for customers, but in the end we believe this is the best thing for Graffiti.
I know we have said it way too many times, but we do believe we can deliver an excellent update in the summer and get ourselves back on a more frequent release cycle.
Okay, so it appears Telligent is rather cool to the idea of open-sourcing Graffiti -- at least for now. However, if summer 2009 comes and goes without the promised upgrades – and considering Graffiti’s track record thus far, that is a definite possibility – then I am personally of the opinion that open source or death are the only two real alternatives.
Of course, the third alternative is for Graffiti to limp along lifelessly as it has been; which in effect is merely a slower form of option #2.
The Case For Open Source
Let’s step back for a moment and examine a few facts.
- The company has had trouble assigning adequate resources to the project from the get-go. Given the current economy, I don’t see how that’s going to change anytime soon.
- Even worse, the company has been inexcusably silent at several crucial junctures. Their failure to provide timely information to the Graffiti user base has done nothing but fuel rumors, breed contempt, and strain the company’s credibility. That’s pretty ironic for a company whose slogan is “Conversations Matter”.
- The competition is looming large in Graffiti’s rear-view mirror. While Telligent stands still, the rest of the .NET CMS world does not. Kentico is gaining in popularity. Sitefinity looks like a very viable new player. Umbraco, AxCMS, and the rest are still going strong too.
- As the ASP.NET open-source community continues to grow exponentially, 2009 will surely give rise to a number of powerful (not to mention, free) alternative CMS solutions. Even the oft-ridiculed Oxite is looking better and better all the time, thanks to the enthusiastic participation of the community.
- Graffiti's largest potential marketing asset -- positive word-of-mouth from its large base of existing users -- has been effectively muted. I have been running this blog on Graffiti CMS since starting it seven months ago, and it's worked well for me. Given that, it's pretty sad that I could not, in good conscience, recommend Graffiti to anyone starting a blog today. I suspect many other Graffiti users feel as I do.
Despite all that’s happened, there are still lots of us out here that want to see Graffiti succeed in one form or another. I strongly believe that if Telligent were to throw the Graffiti code base up on CodePlex tomorrow, there would be dozens, if not hundreds, of developers all over it within hours. Within a week or two we’d be seeing some serious code commits. Inside of a month most of the important but still-missing features will have been implemented. And going forward, Graffiti would be well positioned to take its place as the de facto .NET CMS solution.
Should it come time to face the music, even I, as cynical as I can be sometimes, do not believe that Telligent is evil enough to just euthanize Graffiti outright, rather than graciously offering it to the community and letting us give it the love and attention it deserves.
They would never do such a thing. Would they?
What You Can Do to Help
Look… in the end, I realize I’m just one guy, with one voice. If you believe, as I do, that it may soon be time to release Graffiti CMS as open source, please consider doing one of more of the following:
- Leave a comment below and let everyone know what you think. (Am I just way off base on this? Do you believe Graffiti is savable, or that it’s even worth saving at all?)
- Leave a comment on the “What is the future of Graffiti?” post on the Graffiti CMS blog.
- Start a thread in the Graffiti CMS forums, and state your opinion.
- Write a post about it on your own blog (as Jason Short, CEO of VistaDB, recently did).
- Tweet it, kick it, vote it, shout it, and share it on the social networking/ aggregation sites you frequent.
Telligent can ignore me. They can ignore you too. But I don't think they can ignore all of us, if we speak as one.