A Modest Proposal

Got some ideas as to how the calendar could be improved?
No bugs, no installation issues, just your ideas as to what could be added or changed in this Availability Calendar (remember, this is NOT a bookings calendar by default)

A Modest Proposal

Postby donnacha » Mon Apr 18, 2011 3:54 pm

Chris - as insane as this may sound to you, I believe that your Availability Calendar could act as the foundation for the best and most popular WordPress booking plugin, far better than anything that is available today.

That has the potential to be huge simply because WordPress itself has now become huge - Drupal and Joomla are wonderful but, for whatever reason, non-developers feel more comfortable and in-control with WordPress and, if you look at the numbers, it is clear that we are witnessing a major change in the confidence and expectations of control that ordinary people and small businesses have towards their websites.

At the moment, no WordPress booking plugin, either free or commercial, is offering the simple functionality that people need and, if you look into this area as deeply as I have over the past couple of years, it is clear that there is substantial demand. Jumping from forum to blog post to comment thread, the same simple needs are stated repeatedly by users searching desperately for a solution but, for whatever reason, no developer has yet chosen to address them, instead they keep cooking up overcomplicated, inflexible plugins that are nailed to specific models, such as hotel bookings, rather than providing a universally-applicable/adaptable booking solution.

The closest to getting it right, that I have seen so far, was Raghavendra Deshpande's Resource Booking and Availability Calendar, based upon your script. The magic there was the simply the ability to create a separate calendar for each post, leaving it entirely up to the post author to decide what, exactly, the bookable entity was and how to describe and depict it. In the case of booking plugins, simple is most definitely better and Raghavendra kept it very simple indeed - his plugin is really just a very thin wrapper around your script, simply fetching the post ID each time a post is created and using it to label the db entry for that post's calendar.

Sadly, despite getting that simple functionality right, people are now avoiding the plugin because it has clearly been abandoned and a few code problems remain unresolved.

I gather, from this thread, that you had considered creating a WP plugin yourself but held back when Raghavendra released his a year ago. I believe this was a mistake because you were placing what was fast becoming the most important avenue for growth in the hands of someone else.

At the time, Raghavendra stated "I will be working on improving the plugin further" but, clearly, he lost interest. Despite ongoing bug reports, it has not been updated in almost a year and still uses a year-old version of your script, missing out on your subsequent bug, security and incompatibility fixes.

WordPress plugins can be simple, they work within a well-established framework and, as such, a properly coded plugin should not entail an onerous support burden. Even so, plugins should not be completely neglected - Reghavendra only ever replied to ONE post in the WordPress.org forum for his plugin, a bug report posted immediately after the release. That single reply was his only ever instance of activity within the WordPress forums; all other bug reports, support requests and feature suggestions were simply ignored. Neither has his personal blog been updated in all that time, he seems to have simply disappeared.

Reghavendra's plugin averages less than 10 downloads per day which, in WordPress terms is truly minuscule - the most popular WordPress plugin has had over 7.5m downloads (not including downloads of it's premium version), and the current version of WordPress has, itself, had over 6m downloads. Users are clearly avoiding Reghavendra's plugin because it has an average rating of 2.5 stars out of 5, and one out of the mere 4 people to report upon it's compatibility with the last version of WordPress, 3.1, said that it was incompatible. So far, no-one has bothered to vote on it's compatibility with the current version, 3.1.1.

Chris, I understand that you are busy with client work but I believe that you are, without realising it, in the right place at exactly the right time to create something far more profitable.

For a WordPress booking plugin to really stick it in the back of the net and gain serious momentum, the following would be helpful:

1. A simpler, more memorable name than "Resource Booking and Availability Calendar".

2. Use the current, secure version of your script.

3. Include the ingenious form integration discussed in this forum. You could even quite easily allow the use of Gravity Forms to give users the ability to do advanced stuff, such as collect deposit payments, right out of the box.

4. Have calendars appear only in posts of a certain type - the June 2010 release of WordPress 3.0 saw the introduction of Custom Post Types, allowing certain content and features to appear only in posts of a certain type. A plugin can define a Custom Post Type via a simple function, so, for instance, your plugin could introduce a Property post type or a Boat post type for boat rentals. These Property posts would still basically be just posts but would have their own "Properties" section in the WP dashboard, under which heading the Admin can View All Properties or Add New Property or whatever, just like the "Posts" or "Pages" sections.

5. A switch to jQuery, as discussed in the Jquery Integration of AJAX Calendar thread, would be good, not only because WordPress standardizes upon and includes jQuery by default (meaning faster page loads) but because there is a general swing in the direction of jQuery - for instance, last week Rails dropped Prototype in favour of jQuery, a significant decision when you consider that it was largely Rails that popularized Prototype. Switching to jQuery would give you the benefit of all the ongoing developer focus on jQuery, including new, more efficient AJAX methods. Your script could also possibly benefit from goodies such as the jQueryUI datepicker and other jQuery-based projects.


I am absolutely certain that a booking plugin, done right, could become one of the most celebrated aspects of WordPress, something that would make it even more useful to hundreds of thousands of businesses, individuals and organisations around the world.

Again, I do understand that you are up to your eyeballs in client work but genuinely believe that you are missing a big opportunity, that your Availability Calendar already has 99% of what it needs to provide users with exactly what they need: a simple, easy-to-understand way to present bookable resources, each attached to a single post, and allowing them to decide how to describe and depict that resource within that WordPress post. In essence, Raghavendra got that core idea right, he just didn't have the interest to stick with it.

What would be the benefit to you?

Well, if you go for scale and release it for free on the WordPress plugin repository, it will, as the only booking plugin that is both simple and actually works, rapidly accumulate a substantial user base and, obviously, that would translate into a lot of customization and installation work.

My belief, however, is that you should charge for it if that is what it takes to change this, in your mind, from being the part-time, lower priority project that it is today, to being your major source of income. Pretty much anyone who is going to use this is going to make money from it, it would be insane of them to prefer a lesser plugin, delivered at some future date when you aren't busy (i.e. never), simply in order to save a few quid. The free-beer mentality is still out there, but you can see from the massive success of well-designed commercial plugins that address particular needs such as GravityForms and Scribe, there are now a surprising number of people who are absolutely happy to pay for something that allows their website to do what they need it to do.

I hope you don't mind that I wrote this suggestion, I just feel that this is one of the biggest wasted opportunities I am aware of on the Internet today - all the parts are already there, they just need to be connected, I guess someone will do it at some point, but you should be the one to benefit from this because your script was the hard part, not the WordPress wrapper.
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Re: A Modest Proposal

Postby chris » Tue Apr 19, 2011 1:37 pm

Hi,
Thank you for taking the time to write all that, you certainly had plenty to say :)

I am aware of the version that Raghavendra put together last year for WP however I must admit to have not taken much interest in it. I did try installing it on my Wordpress blog as an experiment but found that it didn't work properly (as you say) and that it was too stripped down for my liking. However, not being a Wordpress developer or user (other than my own blog) it was not something that I was particularly interested in.
To be honest, not much has changed since then. I have worked on some Wordpress plugins, in fact one of them was calendar related, but it is not something that really jumps out at me as an interesting opportunity.

I don't mind giving support for my stand-alone version of the calendar but really don't want to get bogged down into giving (free) support to thousands of WP users and worse still, have to continually keep it up to date and compatible as Wordpress bring out new versions every few weeks as they tend to do.

I just feel that this is one of the biggest wasted opportunities I am aware of on the Internet today

I must say that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration :). I don't follow WP but is it really being used for property (or similar) rental websites? I would have thought that anybody renting properties would look for a better system that is better suited for that purpose, not patching together a blog script.

All that said, I might consider this if I get the time. I am currently beginning work on a different Open Source script but this could be a possible alternative. I will follow up your links and take a closer a look at the possible market.

Again, thanks again for taking the time to write up your thoughts. I am not quite sure why you have done so, but it is greatly appreciated :)

I'll let you know if anything happens.

Chris
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Re: A Modest Proposal

Postby donnacha » Fri Apr 22, 2011 5:59 am

chris wrote:Hi,
Thank you for taking the time to write all that, you certainly had plenty to say :)

Well, I am aware that people often suggest ideas to programmers without realising quite how much work is involved, so, I figured that, if I was going to make this suggestion, it was only fair that I invest an hour into laying out, as clearly as possible, the reasons why it is a good idea.


chris wrote: ... However, not being a Wordpress developer

WordPress is just the PHP you already know + a well thought out system of hooks and filters. A WordPress plugin is just some PHP code declaring itself to be a plugin and calling upon those hooks and filters. You already know all the tricky stuff, WordPress is just another stage for skills you already possess.

This excellent book, released just last month, is said to be a fastest way to get to grips with all you need to create top notch plugins: Professional WordPress Plugin Development. Its three authors are all renowned with the WordPress development community, the technical editor is a leading core dev and it has received unanimously positive reviews.

chris wrote:I don't mind giving support for my stand-alone version of the calendar but really don't want to get bogged down into giving (free) support to thousands of WP users ...

Well, for a start, there is absolutely ZERO requirement that you hold anyone's hand - as with any free software, you make an effort to publish something people can use but the code is provided as is, with no implied warranties or responsibilities.

I think that you might, however, be over-estimating the cluelessness of WordPress users - by the time they get anywhere close to the level of even thinking about booking plugins, they will already understand the (completely standardised) plugin installation process and, if their particular system has any file permission issues, they're going to have run up against that with their very first plugin.

I would argue that, in fact, WordPress gives you a platform that takes care of most of the issues inexperienced users might have.

If, despite all that, someone feels that you and only you can help them, well, you've already given them a free plugin, if they want you to install it for them too, you charge them - plenty of plugins have a free and a paid version, with support available only to paying customers.

If they want customization, you charge them even more. Or, you provide a link to any of the tens of thousands of developers who would be only delighted to charge them and kick back a commission to you.

chris wrote: ... and worse still, have to continually keep it up to date and compatible as Wordpress bring out new versions every few weeks as they tend to do.

Well, actual new versions that contain new methods that could theoretically affect plugins (as opposed to security updates or bug fixes) are released at roughly six-month intervals (WordPress Release History) but, in practice, the WordPress core devs are highly conservative and go to extreme lengths to avoid upgrade problems, to maintain backward compatibility and to signal changes to developers far in advance. For instance, mandated PHP4 compatibility is only being phased out with the next major release - if anything, most developers would like them to be a great deal less cautious.

Security updates, which are as frequent as they need to be (there have been two so far this year), mostly address exploits that affect all PHP-based applications and are a good example of how WordPress handles those problems as a system. A security update or minor bug fix isn't going to affect a properly coded plugin within that system.

In my opinion, one of the best aspects of WordPress is how easy they have made it for users to upgrade - when an upgrade is released, you are alerted to it as soon as you login and you apply it by clicking one button. One click and you're done, even if you have a multisite installation with hundreds or thousands of sites running on it. Again, this is all good stuff that makes life easier, not harder, for plugin authors because it means that the vast majority of your users will be using the same version.

chris wrote:
donnacha wrote:I just feel that this is one of the biggest wasted opportunities I am aware of on the Internet today

I must say that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration :)

Hey, I did warn you right at the start that my suggestion might sound insane but I am entirely serious! I knew that you were completely oblivious to the potential because it was not among the ideas raised when you were casting about, a while back, for ways to make your script pay, whereas, from where I'm standing, the sheer size, the continued growth and the small business demographic of the WordPress market makes it obvious.

chris wrote:I don't follow WP but is it really being used for property (or similar) rental websites? I would have thought that anybody renting properties would look for a better system that is better suited for that purpose, not patching together a blog script.

For years, I've listened to neck-beards deride WordPress as not being "a proper CMS" but I'm not even sure what that means anymore. What is important is that, for whatever reason, it is the publishing platform that ordinary people have flocked to and which has gained critical mass in terms of plugin eco-system, services and skill pool in a way that the competing systems simply have not.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is with the response to Apple's iOS appstore when it was launched back in the summer of 2008. There were a lot of things to not like about Apple's approach and there was no shortage of pundits explaining why a coder would be far better off to avoid Apple's walled garden and, in particular, Apple's 30% slice of the pie. Of course, the way things turned out, customers flocked to the iPhone and iPod Touch, coders were selling more than they expected by orders of magnitude and, suddenly, Apple's 30% didn't seem so relevant.

Is WordPress the best possible platform for a booking website? From a purely technical point of view, probably not - the "best" option for an ordinary person with a small rentals business would be to pay a team of coders twenty grand to write something from scratch. Or, he could pick up the phone and get a local Web development company to create something based upon Joomla for ten grand. Or, he could spend a month or two getting to grips with Drupal and maybe hire some freelance coders to help him pull together a booking plugin for that platform, and hire them again whenever he decided that he wanted to add SEO features or a photo slider or whatever.

But, what if, instead, you were able to say to that ordinary, non-technical person with a small business:

"Here's the WordPress dashboard, which you might already be familiar with from your WordPress.com blog but, if not, you can watch a few videos over at WordPress.tv or you can buy the WordPress for Dummies book. Either way, it is hands down the easiest CMS around, you'll soon feel at home with it."

"You press this button to create a normal post - perhaps an article about the area or a list of ten things to do - or you press this one to create a special "Property" post with a booking calendar on it, you should create one post for each apartment/room/boat/jack-hammer you want to rent out."



Again, this probably wouldn't be as "good" a technical solution as something written from scratch for big money, it probably wouldn't be as suited to a large hotel as, say, Joomla integrated with an expensive booking plugin ...

... but can't you see just how big a revolution is would be if, suddenly, you've got something that is financially feasible at a far more lower level of use?

For the cost of $5 a month hosting and a few PayPal fees ...

    A family with a spare parking space in a busy part of town could hire it out to someone who needs it.

    A kid with an Xbox could rent it out occasionally to other kids so that he can afford to buy new games.

    A family in Stratford could rent out their spare room for the duration of the 2012 Olympics, or a family in Edinburgh could rent out their entire house during the Festival every August and swan off to Spain.

    A part-time Web developer could hire out his evenings

Who the Hell knows what people will come up with if you give them a tool that is flexible enough? All we do know, because we've seen it again and again in technology, is that when things become easier and cheaper, when the granularity for something to be feasible is reduced, amazing things happen.

chris wrote:All that said, I might consider this if I get the time. I am currently beginning work on a different Open Source script but this could be a possible alternative. I will follow up your links and take a closer a look at the possible market.

Entirely new projects are always more alluring, I would just raise the question of whether taking AAC the final mile to place it before a mass audience might not, ultimately, be a lot more rewarding, in every sense of that word?

chris wrote:Again, thanks again for taking the time to write up your thoughts. I am not quite sure why you have done so

I did so because I already know what I would use your plugin for and the potential excites me.
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Re: A Modest Proposal

Postby donnacha » Fri Apr 22, 2011 6:06 am

Oh, I forgot - you asked whether WordPress is "really being used for property (or similar) rental websites".

Well, the current situation does make the opportunity pretty clear:

Booking Calendar Pro - includes booking calendars but rigid feature set is apparently trapped in amber and horrendously expensive, especially for the vacation rentals use case.

WebReserv Embedded Booking Calendar - WordPress plugin which embeds the extremely dated Webreserv reservation system into your site. This and several similar "embedded booking service" plugins are expensive, resource-limitied subscription affairs and defeat the purpose of having your own site.

There has, however, been impressive progress in terms of listing properties -the introduction of Custom Post Types last year sparked a general move towards more advanced functionality, with property websites being an obvious use case.

Probably the most impressive so far is Listings by WooThemes ($200 - Product Info Page - Demo) because it makes exemplary use of Custom Post Types (that video is well worth watching).

Listings is intended as the basis for any directory-type website, with property being the canonical example. They intend to bring out a series of "child themes" that will tailor the underlying Listings theme to a particular type of use.

The first such Listings child theme was Bookclub - $20 (but also requires the $200 Listings theme) - Product Info Page and Demo.

Estate - real estate theme - WooThemes - $200 - Product Info Page and demo.

AgentPress by StudioPress, a Genesis Framework Child Theme ($99 for Genesis + AgentPress), is a basic realty WordPress theme with integrated plugins: info page and demo.

Now, NONE of the four above examples include booking calendars even though, clearly, the simple option to include one in each "Property" post type would instantly open up a whole new market to them. My guess is that, if WooThemes continue to release child themes for Listings, some form of bookings will crop up eventually, but at that high price of $200 + $20.

But, as it stands, right now, on the one hand you've got some solutions that couple booking functionality with horrible taste, while on the other hand you have some great property listing options that lack simple booking functionality.

That is why I zeroed in on Raghavendra's Resource Booking plugin, because I recognized that, if it worked, it was the missing link I could add to themes such as Listings to add a whole new type of site to my repertoire, without forcing my clients to wrestle with the horrible UI of Drupal or Joomla.

If tens of thousands of developers are willing to pay Gravity Forms $199 per year for the ability to create sites with better contact forms, don't you think they would pay quite a bit to be able to radically expand their target market and offer sites featuring bookings, appointments, reservations and rentals?
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