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Perch - in the sweet spot for small projects - 11.08.10

With the last update of my portfolio, eagle eyed readers will have spotted one of the projects is managed with Perch. The makers (the lovely people at edgeofmyseat.com) describe it as “A really little content management system”. For me, this is a good thing!

As you know, I’m a bit of an “Expression Engine aficionado” – I love it, and there’s very little I can’t make it do. But sometimes all that power is just overkill, the back end interface can be overwhelming for new users, and sometimes, let’s face it, it just costs too much to use on a small project (with add-ons, it could add-up to half the budget). So while Expression Engine is great, it’s not for every project.

So what’s so good about Perch?

For a start, it comes with a really little price tag – £35 +VAT. Would it take you more than an hour to build your own CMS? Then you’re already quids in, I’d suggest.

Secondly, the setup is super-simple. If you’ve got an HTML page, just include a few tags in the appropriate places, and you’ve made that page editable. Simple as that. I reckon it would only take me a couple of hours to CMS a simple site.

Thirdly, it’s flexible. Each page can have a different set of editable regions – sometimes each page has just one column, in which case, there’s a case for using Wordpress, or Textpattern or something like that. But often a page will have two columns, a call out box, and a banner introduction. Then, it’s really rather helpful to be able to have multiple editable regions, called whatever you like, on the page.

Fourthly, you can have an “image” field type, to let your clients upload images, and Perch will automagically resize them. This is a great boon. Quite a bit easier than managing images in, say, Textpattern.

Fifthly, whenever I’ve had a problem, I’ve found the support to be great, whether via Twitter or their dedicated support area, Drew and Rachel are generally pretty responsive.

It’s also brandable (you could even let your clients believe you built it just for them).

What’s not to like?

If the site you’re building is a blog site, then Perch probably isn’t for you. (That’s not a criticism of Perch – it’s a case of choosing the right tool for the job). The nightmare situation, of course is that you choose Perch for the site and then the client asks for a blog to be added later. Then you may be left to either rebuild the site in Wordpress/Textpattern/Expression Engine, or leave the client with two different logins for different areas of their site.

I should say that with the “Perch Content Custom” tag, more should be possible, in terms of a news section where each article can have its own page, but this isn’t going to match a blog with RSS etc.

If the site requires a contact form, you’ll have to roll your own – this isn’t a problem for me, but it might put a few people off. Maybe someone will write an “app” for that (did I mention that Perch is extendable via “apps”?). If it had an optional CAPTCHA, then it would be super-awesome.

One other thing I’d love to see, is the option to Javascript encode email addresses – something Expression Engine does really well and can prevent spam. I know there’s a case against doing this, for accessibility reasons, but I often think it’s worth the trade off to hide your email address from spammers.

Summing up

I’d thoroughly recommend Perch to anyone building a simple website, or wanting to retrofit a CMS to their existing brochureware site.

As an Expression Engine devotee, I should probably try out MojoMotor – Ellislab’s younger, smaller brother to Expression Engine. It does look pretty neat, and the option to import your content to Expression Engine does appeal (in theory at least, not sure how it would work in practice). So that might be an option down the road, but I dare say I’ll be sticking with Perch for the time being.

Of course, if you’d like me to build you a site with Perch, I’d be more than happy to!


Portfolio update - 9.06.10

It’s been a busy few weeks, and the summer looks to be just as full. I’ve just found a few minutes to add some items of work that I’ve been pleased with over the past few months.

As always, there’s been loads of work that I can’t display here for various reasons, but it’s included some work on Drupal sites, a number of Perch installations, as well as plenty of Expression Engine custom development.

One exciting project I’ll hopefully be able to share more about over the next few weeks is some design work I’ve been doing on a web application project which has accompanying applications for iPhone, Blackberry and Android.

Do have a look at the latest projects, and let me know what you think. Feel free to get in touch if you have some work you’d like me to do for you.

View the latest work


Essential Expression Engine addons (part deux) - 23.04.10

Since my last post on Expression Engine addons I’ve found a few more I thought I’d share with you.

The marvellous Fieldframe really does work brilliantly to give you access to loads of fieldtypes you didn’t have before. In particular, I use it in conjunction with “Ngen file field“http://www.ngenworks.com/software/ee/ngen-file-field/ which is now a replacement for Mark Huot’s file field.

I’ve experimented with Structure and while I still don’t use it on every project, it can be helpful to give the client a more friendly interface.

The lovely folks at Solspace produce so many fine add ons that I don’t have time to list them here. They’re friendly and responsive too, and I have no hesitation in recommending them. A particularly useful module from them is Super Search. It’s search how it should be done all along, with the ability to order by relevance, the ability to search one site from another with the Multiple Site Manager – I’ve used it for both of these things, and it works great. It’s good for an advanced search setup too.

Brandon Kelly’s Gypsy is a useful module too. If you’ve ever created different weblog fields for each of your weblogs just because they had only slightly different requirements, you’ll know how time consuming it can be. Gypsy lets you use the same field in more than one weblog, freeing you from “all or nothing” fieldgroups.

I could go on, but I won’t… My only other useful link (perhaps more useful than all the others) is the peerless Devot-ee. It’s the most complete resource on Expression Engine add-ons (much more up to date than ExpressionEngine.com’s addon library), and it’s where I go to search for an add-on to do a particular job (more often than not, I’ll find what I’m looking for). Bookmark it, explore it, love it.


The double-edged sword of Expression Engine add-on success - 19.04.10

I love Expression Engine

It’s the most flexible CMS I’ve ever used. I like the fact that I can control ALL the markup, and call things whatever I want. I like defining as many custom fields as I like. There’s not much I can’t do with Expression Engine.

Out the box, it’s great, but there are some essential add ons which take it to another level. I’ve blogged about those already. (Since I wrote that blog, a few others have come on the scene – maybe a follow up post is in order).

Here’s a pattern that I see recurring though:

A developer builds an add-on to plug a hole in EE’s functionality. They start selling it. Ellislab then don’t plug the hole for fear of hacking off the developer community. A classic example is Solspace’s User module. Isn’t this how membership should have been done in EE all along? Ditto for search .Yet the fact that someone is making money out of selling these modules makes it awkward for Ellislab to go ahead and improve things in the core product.

Similarly, Solspace’s tag and Calendar modules are both great, but shouldn’t these be built into EE. Paradoxically, the existence of a great add-on could prevent EE itself becoming better.

(It’s not just Solspace who are making great add-ons, those just happen to be the ones I’ve used most recently).

It seems that feature development in EE itself has stalled (we’ve been promised an Ellislab ecommerce solution for how long now?), and while it’s great that other developers have picked up the baton, I wouldn’t like to see the core platform stagnating.

A lesson from Drupal

At least for most jobs, there’s only one (or at most two) add-ons for the job. This means there’s still pretty much a standard way of doing things. I’ve been dabbling with Drupal lately, and I’m finding that with Drupal, there are multiple modules to do the same job, and it becomes hard to know what to use – particularly for the first time user. The more EE users have to rely on a fragmented set of add-ons, the harder it is to keep on top of the best way to achieve something.

The problem must be more acute for new EE users. The fact that so many things can only be achieved with add-ons makes it much tougher for them to get their head round developing sites with EE.

The cost issue

The issue came to a head when I was chatting to a client about the fact that the cost of add-ons that need to be purchased for each site, on top of the core license. While EE itself has volume discounts, most add-on providers don’t. For him, this extra cost was becoming an issue. He manages a lot of sites. He was also getting frustrated with the pace of development of EE itself, so he began to look at alternatives.

The way forward…

I think that what happened with Fieldframe (it’s built into EE2), and Mark Huot’s Tome (Ellislab built similar functionality into EE their own way) are both causes for hope. The key difference is – these were both free addons.

I don’t underestimate the scale of the task of re-writting EE from the ground up to take advantage of CodeIgniter, but it seems ages since a major new feature was added.

I think it’s good for all concerned if Ellislab actively improve their core offering, as well as encouraging third parties producing great add-ons. I’m not opposed to competition between Ellislab and third party add-on providers, and I don’t mind deals where Ellislab buys in whole modules and adds them to the main code base. Anything that keeps Expression Engine a compelling CMS offering.

It’s a double edged sword, as developers may then become less willing to put in the time it takes to develop an add-on if Ellislab might one day come in and take their market away. I guess the key has to be good communication between Ellislab and the developer community.

For more thoughts on the subject, here’s a “great post on EE add-on pricing“http://www.hopstudios.com/blog/free_the_expressionengine_extensions/ from Hop Studios, much of which I agree with.


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Paul Bell
Boiler Room Digital
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