The future of Drupal could be cooking in this lab

Acquia Labs prepping open source Drupal to support conversational UIs like Amazon Echo's Alexa & Apple Siri, among other browserless interfaces

The future of Drupal could be cooking in this lab

Acquia Labs Development Manager Preston So is focused on "browserless experiences"

Credit: Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

Acquia Labs has no illusions of making self-driving cars or shooting things into space like Google X, but the budding applied research arm of enterprise open-source Drupal provider Acquia does have designs on a slew of new applications for what it anticipates will be an increasingly browserless world. 

Preston So, development manager at Acquia Labs and a 9-year veteran of the Drupal community, shared his vision for Acquia’s skunkworks-plus outfit at the company’s annual Engage event for customers held in Boston this week.

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The reality is that plenty of Acquia customers, such as those who presented at Engage, are still at the point of showing off nice new Drupal-based websites to replace blah ones that have outlived their usefulness. The bad news for them is that having a great website is only a starting point in serving patrons who before you know it could be consuming much more of their content by other means, be it chatbots, augmented/virtual reality systems or conversational interfaces like Amazon Echo and Apple Siri. 

“We’re in the midst of a pretty fundamental content revolution and a reinvention of how we deliver that content,” says So, who has quietly been ramping up Acquia Labs for about a year. “We also have this explosion of new touchpoints.” This is a dramatic change for Acquia’s customers, but also for Acquia and the Drupal project themselves, which have been focused on the web as the primary touchpoint for content delivery.

Despite the change, Acquia sees Drupal playing a key role as a content repository (“a single source of truth”) for these emerging channels and touchpoints. So says content distribution is moving more to a push model than a pull one, and that people and devices are increasingly interacting with content in context rather than simply consuming it.

So says that Acquia Labs, which currently has just a couple of developers, is looking to customers and partners to help it figure out exactly where to focus its efforts -- and to help fund those efforts. The lab will be looking out as far as 36 months, but will also attempt to get proofs-of-concept up and running in a few weeks and deliver new products in as few as 9 months.

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One area the lab is already exploring is the potential of AI-infused conversational interfaces such as Amazon Echo, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri and Google Now, and So demonstrated how Echo could be used to update someone on upcoming sessions at the Engage event. (Amazon Echo is a pretty open platform for developers like Acquia, but Apple and Microsoft are stingier, So says.) He even envisions IT administrators one day using conversational UIs to manage their Drupal and other systems, and says that such interfaces could be a boon for general accessibility to content.

Acquia Labs is also eager to explore the Internet of Things and beacons, which hold promise for retailers looking "to push the right content to the right person on the right device," So says. Drupal is already being used in IoT applications, such as with New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, but personalization of content is the next big step, So says.

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