The Plone Foundation has launched a new version of its open-source content management software this week, emphasising improvements in ease of use and the addition of automatic versioning.

Plone helps users manage documents, files and images through a Web interface and also lets them publish that content to the Internet or to an intranet. The project got under way in 2000 and the software has been downloaded over 1 million times, according to Alexander Limi, Plone’s co-founder. Users include eBay, the US Central Intelligence Agency and Novell.

Plone remains a community effort with the Plone Foundation, in place since 2004, acting as a support organisation for the software, its development and marketing. The foundation is the legal owner of the Plone code.

Versioning was the single most requested feature by Plone’s user community, Limi said. As changes are made in online content, Plone 3.0 now automatically keeps track of those alterations, providing a trail of who edited what information as well as the ability to roll back to earlier versions of the content.

The new release also reflects a lot of work done by the community to make Plone simpler to use, particularly for those ad-hoc users who may not be fully conversant with content management technology. The improvements are the beginning of a plan to introduce a role-based user interface, Limi said. That capability will likely appear in the next Plone release, he added.

The community has also come up with a new overall look for Plone. “Our design is about five years old,” Limi said. “It’s starting to look a bit dated.” The new design is available in Plone 3.0, but isn’t the default setting; that will also come in the next version of the software.

One of the major challenges facing the Plone community is how to deal with the considerable skills gaps between those users up to speed with the latest version of the open-source Zope Web application framework and those who aren’t familiar with Zope 3. Plone is based on Zope and is incorporating more and more Zope 3 functionality. One way Plone 3.0 helps address that issue is by providing tools that can wrap around Zope 3 features and make them look and respond as though they were written in Zope 2, Limi said.

There’s a temptation for some open-source players to get rid of existing functionality in favour of completely rewriting their software, but that’s not an option for Plone, Limi said. As a community-led effort, the project doesn’t want to leave any users of older versions of its technology behind. “We’re rebuilding the plane as we fly it,” he said.

Other new features in Plone 3.0 include improvements to the software’s security, search and workflow functionality.

Limi believes the new release and recently passing the 1 million downloads milestone signal that Plone is about to become a mainstream technology and one likely to be embraced by more enterprise users.

Web content management providers Vignette and Microsoft are Plone’s main competitors, Limi said. Back in July the British open source content management company, Alfresco, launched in Europe and promised a new, Web 2.0 version of its CMS.