Panic at the Xmap: What are the Alternatives?

A sitemap is one of the most important parts of your website, from an SEO perspective; what do we all do, now that Xmap has gone away?

Panic at the Xmap: Or, There's a good reason sitemaps aren't flat lists, but some of you extension authors haven't thought of it yet.Since Xmap is now discontinued and no longer available, it's time to start looking for a replacement. If you haven't yet updated to Joomla 3.4, which I don't necessarily recommend you do in the biggest hurry*, then you can keep using a year-and-a-half old version of Xmap a little while longer - I'll discuss that more within, as well. Just know, staying behind with an old version of Joomla, becomes a worse idea as every week goes by.

This is the first, of a short series of articles, which will unfold as I look into my own replacement for Xmap. As many know, it's not clear, at this time (Edit: ha! ha!), what replacement for Xmap will take suitable shape, soonest. I have my own guesses already -- two, in fact, and they're both Xmap.

Meanwhile, more about both the drama behind the closure of Xmap, and the drama you might be feeling as a result of it, within.

(*) News moves quickly**, during some months, doesn't it? I'll also quickly cover my immediate-term thoughts on updating to 3.4, inside.

(**) Very quickly! Both of my guesses, were correct, although one of them in a sideways fashion; and both have been released already!

A quick aside about Joomla 3.4, Xmap, and the question of whether and how to update: As well as on the note of news moving quickly: First, I post an article saying "update yer dang Joomla", and then exactly a week later, OSM pushes a "minor" X.Y revision. I don't recommend rushing  to install X.Y revisions!

So, quickly, on that: Joomla 3.4 is very good, but as with any version X.Y so-called "minor release" of any software using this version-numbering standard, there are risks. Don't upgrade lightly -- do a full test migration and take the directions seriously, as usual.

In particular, I strongly recommend testing Xmap's functionality on a test-upgrade, wherein you clone your site, upgrade the clone, and test it fully before moving that live. If Xmap goes boom, you will see the need for a replacement is sudden and severe -- and then you will understand the panic.

Would you like me to replace Xmap on your website? Contact me! Work usually takes only 1 to 2 hours!

So, What's the Story: Why did Xmap's Author Stop?

As far as I know, nobody knows. 

...

...

Screenshot of part of the fateful chat about the future of Xmap, discussed below.
Oh, well, yeah, HE probably knows. Thus began a discussion between Xmap author Guillermo Vargas, and the founder of OSTraining, Steve Burge.

Here are the facts as I understand them:

The most recent release of Xmap was a maintenance update in the latter half of 2013.

On Feb 18, Steve Burge, founder of Open Source Training (OSTraining), announced that OSTraining's software arm, Alledia.com, would release a free sitemap extension for Joomla, called OSMap. In the announcement was language implying that OSMap would be a fork of Xmap, which is released under the GNU GPL.

On approximately Feb 22, Guillermo Vargas, author of Xmap and owner/operator of its website, jooxmap.com, announced he was closing his digital doors. The download, documentation, and other links were taken down, and the site was replaced with a message: Xmap will "not longer" (sic) be "supported nor available".

A few days later, on Feb 26, a conversation took place in the comments of the aforementioned OSMap announcement, wherein Steve Burge of OSTraining, speaking under the auspices of hosting software brand Alledia, together with the author of Xmap, discussed whether OSMap was an "appropriate" project. In that conversation, a key business discussion took place in public, and the author of Xmap said he had planned for a new version, to be released by next summer. 

I must make clear that I am uncertain about the sequence of events -- someone correct me, if jooxmap.com was shuttered before the OSMap announcement, please.

In the comment thread, Vargas asked Burge to "respect my copyright". Having repeatedly asked Vargas to call or email, Burge now could only reply, probably with the company lawyer hanging hot over his shoulder, they would indeed "respect the copyright" and "create a distinct codebase".

Oh Snap Map

The GNU GPL gives Burge every right to create a derivative or spiritual successor of Xmap, whether based on Xmap's code by editing or education or not at all; and if based on Xmap's code, it gives the legal right to do so with only enough effort put into the new project to suffice as not being the original. I'm not a lawyer, but if the completed project is to also be released under the GNU GPL, I believe very little modification indeed is required to satisfy the right, and necessity, of rebranding.

Further, the community implicitly mandates, key extensions must be updated more often than Xmap has been updated. And to bring it all back home, the apparent rage-quit style shuttering of the Xmap website is a signal to the user base, of not-the-nicest kind.

Screenshot of jooxmap.com after it was shut down.
Were I to stoop to a breakup joke, I'd say Vargas did this to us, via text.

So there we have our explanation -- what little of it, there is. It seems apparent to me that Xmap has either suffered author burnout, or its author does not understand the demand cycle which his project's quality, has placed upon it, and him by extension. Refusing to update a role-dominant extension, one with such a barren interface (and which thus must have stacks of feature requests waiting), for so long, alongside swift progress in Joomla itself, and then shuttering afterwards -- it all signals a disinterest in maintaining that position of dominance, at least for now. Arguing that software released under the GNU GPL ought not be forked under such a situation, however, signals failure to understand the first things about the open source community Vargas has contributed to so kindly.

It's a fact: Stale, but popular projects, with the GNU GPL stamped across them, get forked. Forking in such a situation, is a force of nature -- just as much so as the open source movement itself, is -- precisely because crowdsourcing vitality when necessary, is one of the very channels of that force.

So, yes, Xmap briefly entered retirement. Its author claimed it might someday reemerge as Xmap2, but instead, it skipped a generation and arrived instantly. Wait, what? That's right -- the official Xmap 3 is out now! What, WHAT? News really moves too darn fast some weeks... 

Crisis over? Should we all go download Xmap 3 now? Maybe, or maybe not so fast. For one thing, another alternative has arisen which I expect will be superior, although that's an untested assumption as of today. 

Let's slow down and take this story in order, continuing with the situation initially faced after the closure of Xmap.

Surveying the Field

The author of Xmap suggested the correct course of action -- search the Joomla! Extensions Directory (JED) for a replacement. The rub, however, is that, whether the sarcasm was intended or not, ha ha, what replacement -- the pickings are very slim. If you wanted to count the JED's free sitemaps for Joomla 3 on one hand, you wouldn't need all five fingers.

The search results on the Joomla Extensions Directory for free Joomla 3 sitemaps, as of 3/5/2015.
If I played whack-a-mole every time I needed something from the JED but heard only crickets, I'd -- probably be playing too many Flash games?

On the JED Now

When I say slim, I mean four extensions, and listing one of them here, is a stretch:

EKS - Easy Keyword Sitemap: This offers another alternative to flat lists, hierarchical reproductions of your menu structure, and so forth. However, it only crawls your articles - making it immediately inadequate for serious use.

Aimy Sitemap: Although I consider it inadequate, I'm going to publish a full review in the coming days, which will comprise the next part of this series. It actually crawls your front-end, but bumps into too many of my dealbreakers, such as that a flat bullet list is inadequate structure for a sitemap.

Qlue Sitemap: I have yet to tinker with this, but I intend to review it as well. It's gotten some angry reviews on the JED recently, but its version for 2.5 was well-liked. Regardless, according to its screenshots anyway, its output is another flat bullet list - if true, not adequate.

Footer Sitemap Menu: This is the one that's not like the others. Firstly, it's a module, not a component, but if it filled the need, a module could be promoted to page status by simply embedding; second, it's an alternative menu module. If you want to build it by hand and you like the output styles, it could work, ish. However for this usage, it balks: we can already build sitemaps by hand if we want to, we certainly don't need an extension to help make life tedious.

Let's face it, Xmap was dominant for so long that it could go stale for a year and a half and users barely cared. That's not the most inviting market for the competition. However, now the buzz is out -- everyone who wants a guaranteed shot at some eager download-and-evaluate activity, is rushing to publish a replacement for Xmap.

Promises, Promises

I've seen two smaller-profile promises for forks of Xmap. Of those, I can only confirm that one of them, b2un0 aka z-index development, has released extensions before.

That latter one, has, in fact, already released his Xmap replacement, under the name Xmap 3 Continued. However, the demo for another of that same author's extensions, MemberMap, was down until I notified him of that fact -- and now that it's up, it proves wonky, at best, in my browsers. That, combined with the obvious rashness of naming an extension Xmap 3, when Xmap 2 was only recently claimed as a project by the original author, puts me off of immediately taking it seriously. I understand everyone has a hobby -- my own website was originally going to be gaming focused -- but z-index's website currently seems to be a dev house second, and we've just gotten finished watched Xmap sit unattended.

Promising to debut as an extension developer via forum announcement claiming you can take over a mission-critical fork, and zerging the vacuum and chaos to plant a flag in hopes history declares you victorious -- these are simply not the channels by which I become confident of a software release. This holds, even after one discovers an apparent digital trail indicating that Xmap's actual author, may have passed the torch in that direction.

A Welcome Comeback

Whether Vargas and/or z-index revive the reputation of Xmap as such, via Xmap 3 Continued; or whether someone else's fork proves more successful -- the community eagerly welcomes a continuation or true replacement of Xmap. 

However, we need a solution which is regularly maintained, stays relatively bug-free with every release, and which, critically, maintains backwards-compatibility with Xmap's plug-ins -- a need z-index's so-called Xmap 3 Continued, has already leaned on as a promise. But, they're not the only one -- OSMap makes the same promise.

Even letting continuation of plugin coverage aside, a sitemap is only a list of articles, and not a sitemap at all, if it only covers the Content component; just as it's merely a bullet list, and not a sitemap at all, if there is no real structure, to put the "-map" into the name upon its throne. These factors alone are enough to put OSMap and Xmap 3 Continued at the top of my list for likely replacements -- but only time will tell, once I've evaluated all options.

Conclusions, For Now

In my not-so-final, ongoing analysis, I believe two things: firstly that Xmap 3 Continued will gain popularity if it is approved by the JED under that name, which it very likely may be, given the project has the apparent blessing of Vargas; and secondly, that OSMap will be the better product. One hopes OSMap doesn't get into the JED before Xmap 3 Continued does, due to nothing but insider connections. On that note, however, if the JED pauses to account for the drama, z-index has only its own choice of project name, to blame for the delay.

In any case, I offer that as my current opinion on our prospects as users, and as a fire under z-index's hotseat as a developer: if you want to dance the kind of big-boy dance, what comes with being responsible for something so mission-critical at a time when Joomla's exposure is likely to rise along with its maturity, your competition is boss. Bring your A-game. I look forward to seeing how the fate of the extension currently known as Xmap 3 Continued, plays out with the all-important JED review staff.

So my honest opinion, as of today, March 5, 2015? There is no viable alternative to Xmap, at this time. If Joomla 3.4 isn't worth losing your sitemap, play wait and see, sticking with Joomla 3.3.6 for only a little while longer. Keep reloading the JED search for sitemaps until OSMap, Xmap 3 Continued, or something else new appears, or until reviews for those mentioned above, improve. 

I'll have more on this topic until I reach the resolution of Xmap Panic 2015, as it develops. 

Update: Sometimes a night's sleep makes all the difference: OSMap is out! And, it is indeed a fork of Xmap. Expect a name change before long, since OSMap sorta collides with OSMaps, the street map extension -- but you can also expect a review of OSMap from me, in the very near future.

Update 4/1/2015: OSMaps, the street maps extension, aka OpenStreetMaps, has not been updated in some time and might actually fall off the JED, this summer, for that reason; it seems my prediction about a name-change for OSMap, the sitemap extension, was wrong. And due to the date, I must note, this isn't a joke :)

Next in the series: Extension Notes: Aimy Sitemap 3.6.1

Would you like me to replace Xmap on your website? Contact me! Work usually takes only 1 to 2 hours!