Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Test-Driving Adobe's Business Catalyst

Even though I work for Adobe, I want to give as honest an appraisal of Business Catalyst as possible here. So I need to stress up front that these are my opinions, not those of the company.

Normally, I spend my time using and/or documenting Adobe's 800-pound gorilla of the Web Content Management space, Adobe CQ. If you're not familiar with Adobe CQ, it's one of the most elaborate, flexible, and feature-rich enterprise-grade content management systems in the world, and it comes with an almost unfathomably elaborate marketing and analytics capability (I said almost, okay? it's fathomable), so that if you're a McDonalds or an Audi (or other Fortune 100 customer) and you need to roll out a worldwide website in 100 languages, and do all the things McDonalds, Audi, etc. do on their websites, Adobe CQ is what you need. There's nothing it can't do. Whatever it can't do, you didn't want.

By the same token, though, if you're just a little guy (maybe you have an art supply store and you just want a basic e-commerce site that will perform well under light to moderate load), Adobe CQ is massive overkill. Let's put it this way. If you want to become a private pilot, you don't start out in a Boeing 747. Right? You need something smaller, lighter.

Business Catalyst supports in-context editing, which lets you work on individual page elements in WYSIWYG fashion.

Business Catalyst is Adobe's SaaS offering in the "we host it, you build it with our great tools" CMS space. It combines website hosting with a rich design-and-management application layer so that you can create, publish, and manage a moderately complex business site (with newsletters, forums, blogs, events, etc.) without buying any servers and without trying to hook up so-and-so's CMS package with this or that ISP's hosting options. With Business Catalyst, you create and roll out your site in the cloud using browser-based UIs. Adobe hosts your site and you pay a fee ranging from $6.59 (yes, just $6.59) to $38.88 a month (with a 15% discount for biyearly payment-in-advance) to manage it yourself using Business Catalyst's tools.

At the $6.59/month level, you get all the usual page creation and management features you'd expect in any CMS these days (including in-page/in-context editing) along with sophisticated site analytics, a form builder, site search, and phone and tablet support, plus 100MB of storage and 1GB/mo. bandwidth. At the high end ($38.88/mo.) you get a shopping cart, e-mail campaigns, forums, web apps, CRM features, social media integration, and quite a bit more, plus a gig of storage (not enough, I know) and terabyte bandwidth. To see the detailed feature breakdowns for the various packages, go here.

Space forbids a complete description of the UI in this blog post, but suffice it to say that in the high-end version of Business Catalyst you get good tools for managing blogs, events, photo galleries, news streams, media assets, comments, FAQ pages, ad rotators, and forums, plus a useful web form builder, tools for URL redirects and Secure Zones, and quite an easy menu-builder capability.

Unlike others in this space who give you a million pre-canned page templates to choose from but no control over raw HTML (here I'm thinking of Spruz, in particular; a horrendously ugly and clumsy offering, in my opinion), Business Catalyst allows you to drop down to raw-HTML, CSS, or JavaScript any time you want. Which is good, because BC doesn't come with a zillion pre-made templates. What it lacks in this department it makes up for in Adobe Muse (and Dreamweaver) integration, though, and also there's a devilishly clever Extract Template feature in the Pages area of the Site Manager, whereby you simply select two existing Pages from your site, click a button, and then the pages are compared and all common content is saved off as a Template.

What's not to like in this system? Workflow capability is spartan. The workflow system is more of a daisy-chained e-mail (and SMS) notification system with timeouts than a true workflow system. It lacks splits, joins, quorums, retries, custom tasks, an extensibility API, and other things I automatically think of when I hear "workflow system." Very simple (but useful) content-approval and customer inquiry workflows are available out of the box if you need them. But here's an example of what you can't do (and maybe this will give you an idea what a real workflow system can do): Suppose a new member joins your site and you want the successful registration of that new person to kick off a workflow that provisions the user with various types of resources, such as a rich profile page, an access-controlled (public/member/private) photo gallery of his/her own, and an upload/download area for arbitrary assets (PDF, .docx, .ppt, whatever). I didn't see a way to set that sort of thing up (with or without "workflows").

Membership-management capabilities, in general, seemed to me to be on the sparse side, so if your main goal is to set up an Association or fraternal-organization site, check Business Catalyst's features carefully before proceeding.

Another weakness is storage. On all the plans I saw, the max storage was shown as one gigabyte. I'm hoping that's a typo. Any serious social site these days needs terabyte storage. (Imagine that you have 10,000 members and they all want to post a video.) But maybe Business Catalyst (which after all is for building business sites) isn't intended to be that kind of site builder.

If you're simply interested in building a nice webfront for your catering business (or whatever), one gig of storage will do fine and Business Catalyst will not only meet your needs, it will probably shock you with its capabilities. (The e-commerce capabilities alone are untouchable at this price.) For any kind of serious membership site, though, you're going to need more than a gig of storage, and you'll want rich user partitions with granular access control, plus friends/followers capability, and probably lots else. If you have highly specific social-site requirements, you'll want to look very carefully at Business Catalyst's capabilities to see if they're in the box already, because frankly (this is another serious drawback) if you need to build what's not already in the box, you're not going to find much in the way of extensibility APIs to help you. 

The only other caveat worth mentioning is language support. BC currently comes in English, French, German, Spanish, and Swedish versions. Nothing else.

Bottom line, if you're in the market for a moderately complex Ning or Elgg solution, you might want to take a look at the latest incarnation of Adobe Business Catalyst first. The pricing is excellent, the UIs are easy to learn, the feature list is long, and (no big surprise) the integration with other Adobe products, particularly Muse and Dreamweaver, is better than good. Extensibility isn't strong and the 1-gig cap on storage seems a bit odd, but aside from that, Business Catalyst can only be called an impressive offering, especially for small-business owners who need good e-commerce and customer engagement tools at a budget price.