Disruption: Birthplace of CMS, Cloud, Custom Software

Krysta Hunt
Nov 29, 2018

Once upon a time, an amazing new communication tool called the internet was created by geeks. When non-geeks saw it, they said, “This is ugly and I don’t understand how to use it.” So, some other geeks got together and said, “Let us create a set of standards that will allow us to make the internet pretty and usable.” And…HTML was born.

That’s kinda sorta how it started. HTML enabled readable links and the addition of pictures. For the early nineties it was pretty cutting edge, but by today’s standards, yikes!

In 1994, if someone had said, “You know a stylesheet could make that look a whole lot better and be reusable across your entire application,” they would have gotten a room full of blank stares. The public mindset wasn’t ready for the move beyond static HTML pages. In fact, the nascent web community was still up in arms over the use of tables and framesets to create page layouts and reusable site navigation. It was was scary stuff back then. But those advancements, with the innovation of inline styles, led us to websites we know today.

We can look at any industry and see how advancements in technology have disrupted and changed business. Companies that can move quickly and adapt, have survived and often thrived.

Web development has become standardized and more democratic. Tools have emerged that allow everyone from company CEOs to grandmas to create and maintain content on their own websites. Dreamers leverage new technologies to become the new hotness or die in the fiery depths of public opinion. Meanwhile, streams of tools have come and gone, attempting to emerge as the one tool to rule the internet landscape. Only a few leaders have emerged.

Market share trends for content management systems for websites

2017 1 Oct 2018 1 Feb
WordPress 59.5% 60.0%
Joomla 6.7% 6.4%
Drupal 4.7% 4.6%
Squarespace 1.4% 1.5%

And the winner is .. whatever is free/cheap, easy to use, and doesn’t take a lot of work to maintain. OR, whatever is built on the most accessible web platforms available to amateur and aspiring developers. And has tools that allow the most people the greatest opportunity to innovate.  

In the early 2000s, and until recently, there has been a “stack” involving 4 pieces of free to use technology:

  • The “LAMP” stack: Linux, an essentially free unix-based operating system that could be put on almost any outdated computer to give it new life as a development server.
  • Apache, an open-license, free to use web server that was built into Linux servers.
  • MySql, a light version of more robust databases that didn’t do as much as Oracle, but did a LOT more than MS Access and, best of all, was free to use.
  • And PHP, a loosely typed language that could run in real-time on a server, it was easy to learn and was the perfect toy language to complement to the web tool freegasm, truly opening the realm of web development to the amateurs and hobbyists.

No longer did you have to have 4 years of computer science or a suit and tie to share your ideas with the world. A smart high schooler with a few friends and a long weekend could spin up a website that would sell for millions as soon as it got popular (that happened more than once).

This tech revolution led to a great deal of innovation and saturation, which also led to the tech recession of the early 2000s. Out of the revolution, the leaders of the CMS (Content Management System) world were born.

Nearly every CMS that has been built in the past 20 years has the same basic paradigm.  There is an admin interface where you can define the look and feel of your site, the pieces and parts, through templates or layout builders. There is a strong community of “modders”, building plugins and add-ons to make it easier to use or easy to add on additional functionality. You can build your pages, set up your shop, communicate with and track your audience and overall deliver content.  The data is saved to a database on the backend and the tool compiles all the data its given and renders web pages dynamically.

That same basic paradigm has proven to work for nearly 20 years. Why now, is that at risk? We can find the answer in three now common aspects of the modern age that are all coming into their maturity at about the same time, and paint a very different picture of the internet of the next 20 years.

 

1. Heads in The Cloud, Generation NOW

The most prominent of these is the millennials now coming into possession of regular paychecks. With buying power comes great market influence.

Internet statistics show that the average replacement rate of a cell phone is less than 2.5 years and that cycle is actually getting shorter. But wait, millennials love their phones, they are never without them, their lives, their documents, their entire history of selfies is on their phones..or is it?

Documents are stored on the cloud, so they are easily shared between devices, selfies are quickly uploaded to Snapchat or Instagram. Even the app that allows me to set the temperature of my oven on my drive home so I can pop in that roast when I walk in the door, is just a gateway to cloud data.  Everything on the internet is data, and it’s all stored on the cloud, actually in massive server farms with petabytes of solid state hard drives just waiting to be filled with cat videos and pictures of every cute moment of your perfect baby’s life.

All the sleek and sexy devices we have, are really just tools for accessing that massive store of data crucial to running our lives. And the prevailing attitude of people under 30s is that if it doesn’t load before I want it, its crap. Throw it out and move on.  Phone apps that don’t deliver within seconds of install are just as quickly uninstalled. Websites that make you wait?? Pfft, Deuces!

But they also want ALL THE THINGS. What do you mean I can’t have a triple venti pumpkin spice mocha skim latte frappuccino at 210 degrees? Where there is demand, there is supply. And we are emerging on a world and culture, where the demand is. Everything! Now!  

 

2. Making the Grade

The second culprit in this revolutionary trifecta comes from companies like Amazon and Google, and their tireless efforts to tell us what is important and how to be important enough to matter. It’s no mystery that Google has a very lightweight, performant homepage or that Google has retained more than 90% of the world’s search traffic over the last 8 years. With Yahoo and Bing and at less than 3% each, Google is not only the biggest game in town, they have the clout to write the rules. They set the standards, they write and enforce the algorithms. They define what matters and hold you accountable. Want traffic? Want SEO value? Want to see your business rise above the rest in the menagerie that is Google. Then learn the rules and follow them. So there. Mwahahahaha!

But what that really means is that Google is always trying to up the game. To improve the bottom line, just like most hardware manufacturers or software developers, we are only as good as the oldest thing we support. So, I’m sorry 2003 web app that was written in ColdFusion and now limps along with yearly content updates. You are just not going to be at the top of the list and don’t ask me how you can get better SEO or page rankings because you are old and dead to me. Don’t even send me a Christmas card!

Apps like Google Mobile Performance Scoring or Yslow are among literally thousands of others are all built around this concept. They give grades or scores based on how fast your page loads, how you might optimize your content to load faster and lighter and make the most of that split second of attention you have to make an impression before you too, like so many web properties before you, are discarded up on the heap of outdated irrelevance. No soup for you!

5 years ago, you could feel good with an 80% (B), few errors and doing your best to minify all your CSS and javascript. Today, dividing content, minifying, Gzipping, componentizing, optimizing images, moving resources to a CDN and lazyloading everything but the barest of above the fold content barely ranks a website in the High 70’s and that’s an F, usually, because there is too much content. Page weight is becoming the new hotness.  Light, lean, and simple. Anyone know any HTML 1.1 anymore, I need some simple elements with inline styles and vanilla javascript, and, oh yeah, make those pages static!! Welcome to 1994 folks, the code’s the same, it just looks better.

Google has been pushing two really crucial things over the past few years:  AMP, Accelerated Mobile Pages, where the simplified HTML and static presentation are paramount, and something called Progressive Web Apps, the practice of streamlining your website on mobile for an app-like experience, preferably using AMP.

 

3. Going Mobile

That brings us to the third crucial piece of tech coming into its heyday. We all know that mobile devices account for more web traffic than desktops. With few exceptions, most people, watch videos, read news, blogs, and articles, shop, and communicate all from mobile devices, mostly smartphones. What is one thing mobile phones have in abundance? Slow internet connections and low amounts of memory. But wait, how does that work with Generation NOW? See above re: Google’s efforts to move the internet paradigm toward a lighter, more mobile-friendly performance vector. Lighter and faster loading is better, but how do I get all phenomenal cosmic sized data, to the itty bitty drive space, of a mobile device?

Accessing the cloud, obviously –  because it’s not practical to provide in-app purchases in that candy game to buy more mega gumdrop bombs if the user can’t do it while they’re sitting at the hairdresser. Gawd, people might talk to each other or something. I shudder at the thought.

So rather than promote social well being, we came up with the API, or Application Program Interface. Which is essentially a way for an application to call predefined web addresses to exchange data and get updates. This lets them keep a small data record locally and make a call whenever they need to change or update.

So we know that CMS’s have been stuck in the same rut for almost 20 years and so far it’s been fine, it hasn’t destroyed any industries. Newer languages, design patterns, and internet technologies have come and gone and these stalwart bastions of last decade’s technology have stood fast, weathered the storms and the changes and that is all going to come to an end very very soon.

Introducing, cloud-based content management. This is the brilliant idea of many people and the concept has been around for a number of years, but recently the players are upping their game. What it is is a simplified idea of content. Do you write blogs? Okay, what are the parts of your blog? K – that pretty much sounds like every other blog around so we have a standard form for that. A title, a witty tagline, and the body, some images? We got you covered. Fill out the standard blog post form add a link to your profile and some create dates and voila, you have saved your content.

Well, then where does your blog post go? Oh, it goes to your site, well your site can call our API and then render your content any way you want. The front end styling is completely up to your site. Oh, it needs to get syndicated to 57 affiliates? Sure we can cache it and put it on our high availability server and all 57 of those sites can come get it from us in the same standard format and use it and style it on their sites without any additional work or development.  

If this was hosted only in your own CMS, the extra calls would probably crash your server.

So what does all this mean for the future of the standard hosted LAMP stack CMSs that dominate the industry now? For the most part, the very nature of their architectures are geared toward traditional page compilation, often using slow compiling string replace injection in the form of shortcodes to render various items to the page. Most of the time, they don’t have a way of loading different page architecture to different types of devices without having entirely separate applications that deliver mobile optimized pages. The concept of lazy loading and optimizations is accomplished with plugins and the changes are only skin deep.  

Like so many other industries, this one is seeing its time where the players need to adapt or be replaced by newer, more innovative competitors.

A couple of the potential rising stars in the space:

Kentico a mature, if lightly popular .NET based CMS recently launched Kentico Cloud, which is making an attempt to decouple the content management from site delivery. The management system still maintains the look and feel of the site, the navigations, the templates, the layouts and pages, all metadata and display rules, but the content and the ability to add/edit/update the text, titles and images, lives in an always accessible simple cloud-based interface. Migrating code and updates is the same, but migrating content, an epic level pain point to all CMS, is now moot. Simply check that your content or that version of your content is now available to your production environment.

Siteleaf, a newer addition, is taking that one step further and creating even the page definitions and sitemap, metadata, as well as custom object definitions and data fields, among other things, in the cloud. And there are many others doing the same thing, removing the dependencies, lightening the data load, and streamlining the delivery. With a single API  call, you can search, filter and paginate before delivering a very light data package for your website to render.

This doesn’t solve every issue of every CMS and obviously contains some minor degree of risk if for some reason the site with your content goes down. But that’s what caching is for. There will always be risk in innovation and in the internet. But change and adversity is what created the interwebs that provide so much to our modern world. CMSs are useful and by no means dead, but the internet is a place of change and adaptation and, as industry after industry have proven, only the strongest survive. Lookout Drupal and Joomla! WordPress is already rewriting their back end and updating their editor. And Magento is close on your heels for market share.

Adapt or die in this tech revolution, and if that isn’t enough fun for you, there will be another one next week.

By the way, if you haven’t upgraded your phone twice in the time it took you to read this, you are SO last year.