CMS: Useful Wins Again

It’s been almost twenty years since the first branded Content Management Systems (CMSs) hit the market. They were an unbearable kluge back then, and didn’t work well; but hey, if you had a bajillion dollars to toss at MarchFirst or any one of hundreds of other pre-dot-bomb era consultancies, you could have a half-baked Web CMS, delivered by a team of twenty dot-commers living large on VC funds, and talkin’ you up in Red Herring or Business 2.0 Magazine. Hey, who doesn’t want that?

The fast times flourished, and whoever could spew the most syllables per second of consultant-speak won the CMS implementation gig (seriously). Could designers design with it? Nope. Were writers or sitebuilders creating content with them? Not with WordPerfect or Claris Homepage in the next room.
Nope, CMSs’ usefulness was often an afterthought, when it came to users and customers. The complex and powerful “CMS” was useful for Web 1.0 investors though, as a shock and awe tool to generate a fast buck.

Pressure by the CIO to “use the software or else,” combined with a healthy dose of self-thought and fear, uncertainty and doubt by the ones supposed to be using the software (“He must know what he’s doing”) was cause enough for employees to be whisked off to week-long training camps (at company expense) to figure out how to get this line of type, to be part of that document, granting those people the ability to view this version, and those other people to edit, annnd ohhh crap. The server’s down. Crap, crap, crap. OK, do over.

The software wasn’t all bad; the basics were there, they were just often unsupported, as consultancies were busier lining up clients than servicing the ones already signed.

OK, you get that. So fast-forward out of that pre-2k mashugana.

Financial crashes have a way of humbling folks, and reminding them that tools need to be – I don’t know, the word “useful” comes to mind. The post 2k survivors did so for that reason. Painful as it was, dot-bombination was a natural filtration of the software industry. Useful won out then; and it’s winning now.

Subsequent financial crashes have kept CMSs focused on usability and utility. Pressure to compete due to shrinking budgets, a licensing revolution, social networking, integration with CRM, marketing analytics, mobile apps, server & cloud-based options; these and many other factors continue to push the CMS industry forward.

Exponential industry growth for both Open Source and Proprietary systems isn’t coming from the bottom-line get-rich-quick venture capitalists; it’s coming due to the most important investors of all: customers. Users, who need their software to be useful.

Usefulness is winning. Form is following function. Streamlined, purposeful applications and extensions, based on business needs are being accepted; creative freedom is now the expectation, not just a “want,” and finally, those delivering CMSs aren’t just listening; they’re delivering useful solutions.

It’s not perfect, and still has a long way to go, but the painful crash had a fortunate result, sobering up developers to focus on usefulness for designers, writers, sitebuilders and end users. So my recommendation?

Come close to the screen, so I can whisper this:

Dig in and embrace Content Management Systems now, while times are tough, and you can recognize what they’re truly meant to do. Technology is customer-driven right now, but there are clear warning signals of another VC explosion ahead. The cycle is at the right time to get in on it now, while it’s useful. But hurry, before the suits come back to confuse the marketplace!

The greatest virtues are those which are most useful to other persons.” – Aristotle

I had to toss in that quote by Aristotle. It’s just a reminder that no matter how long the “usability suits” wax poetic on their unique skills, there’s a guy almost 2,500 years back, wearing sandals and a white piece of cloth who engraved what that consultant just said, in 70 characters (that’s less than a tweet).

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John Coonen is a graphic designer, writer and conference organizer from Chicago, Illinois. His conference is for designers, dev’s and business folks. If you like, you can follow John @CMSExpo or Facebook.


  • Mirko

     Speaking of usability, i signed up on your site but spent 10 minutes trying to find a way to post a new discussion, on top of that in every topic it says “comments are closed”.

    Anyway, Big Tree does look like a nice piece of work. I’m mostly using Concrete5 and CMS Pro!(codecanyon) for my works. The reason why i am writing this is because i think that CSS is the key for adoption. Don’t get me wrong, i don’t mean literally, but i was trying to say that easy templating is the key to adoption.

    Yet on your site i found very little info on creating themes(templates), it is mostly PHP snippets. It is great, but if you want an larger audience, you must introduce designers/front end coders to your CMS. Why not create a few HTML5 starter themes, post a comprehensive tutorial on creating themes, something to present your CMS to frontenders.

    I hate wordpress as much as you do, but one of the reasons why it is mostly used CMS today is the ability for designers to easily create themes. I’m not saying that it is hard to do so in Big Tree(i actually believe it is fairly easy), but without the proper introduction and information, many designers will just skip you CMS.

  • Looking at the list of CMS in the  expo showcase and just WOW-  Some I have not even heard about it.

  • Nice article.WordPress dominate the content management system.

  • Mirko

     Yes i’m in the discussions forum. The funny thing is i can add comments when not signed in, but upon signing in i get “commenting not allowed”.

    Anyhow, i really hope you will put emphasis on front-end/designers too, that way your CMS will generate more buzz, have much wider audience, all in all i think you can only benefit.

    Just one example, take Fork CMS for example, great for developers, but theming is hard, there is no real documentation or tutorials for designers…the result, forum is feeling empty, 2-3 replies max on one topic, not the way you want to go if you invested hours upon hours of work into your CMS.

  • karks88

    Pretty much my whole career I’ve worked for and with small and medium-sized organizations. Back in the day, a CMS was just a daydream for me due to the cost, not even giving me a chance to see how terrible the functionality was.  Now, it’s just amazing that the technology works and is within everyone’s reach, no matter the budget.  It certainly does make things easier.