Whenever someone decides to launch a website, or hired to do so for a client, he’s given three broad choices which will define how they’ll proceed: static HTML, a CMS or Flash. The former being practically dead due to inflexibility and the latter being not only inflexible, but extremely costly to produce, the CMS route seems a dead end; more specifically, the Open Source CMS route.
Dead end it is. Try raising the simple, innocuous question “Which CMS should I chose for my site?” on any public forum and a war seems to spring right out of nowhere. The fighting fractions are what I usually call The Big Three: Drupal, Joomla! and WordPress fans. But is this all there is to it? Does the Open Source CMS universe revolve around only three players? Given the Open Source spirit of Freedom of choice, one would hardly expect this to be the case. In fact, it isn’t. There is more to Open Source CMS than meets the eye.
Swatting flies with a baseball bat
The hidden truth behind the aforementioned question is that not all software is created equal. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” CMS. Each site is a separate project, with specific requirements and solid needs. Each CMS is a tool bound to architectural objectives and compatibility concerns. As a result you can either stretch the project to fit the tool, or pick the right tool for the project. As the common parable goes, you might end up swatting flies with a baseball bat.
Far-fetched as it might sound to the die-hard fans of The Big Three, none of them is exceptional in creating and maintaining simple, structured, web sites. All of them suffer from the major ill-effect of being popular: they have to be “one size fits all“. Since this phrase is by definition an oxymoron in software design, all of them have to trade off some usability for flexibility, transforming into content management frameworks on which third-party developers can build their next big thing.
This gradual transformation has taken the focus from the user to the developer and puts content management in the back seat, almost making it look like an afterthought instead of an integral element of the system. This is great if you have a dedicated IT department or at the very least a tech-savvy person to maintain the website, but it’s unecessary complexity for the “mom and dad” kind of company who strives for a basic Internet presence. Guess which one is the biggest client – in terms of installed base – for Open Source CMS?
Necessity is the mother of innovation. To this extent, a lot of smaller CMS have sprung in the last decade. Sometimes out of the death of a pre-existing CMS, as the evolution of another web publishing system or written entirely from scratch, these small CMS strive to fill in the low to middle end gap in Open Source CMS: making actual content management their priority.
Back to the CMS roots or grassroots software? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but the small CMS are here to stay. I can never be surprised enough by the neat structure of CMS Made Simple‘s content. I admire how MODx handles powerful extensibility without compromising simplicity in the content management. Want some powerful features – like integrated presentation mode and content versioning – without giving away much ease of use? Well, take a look at Plone.
Sometimes, you don’t even need a CMS. If all you want is a wiki, a photogallery, an e-shop or a forum, there’s no need searching for a suitable implementation of them over a CMS. usually you can get away with installing a dedicated web application for each of these tasks. Most of the times, it’s much simpler to install them side-by-side to a CMS, or even a static HTML or Flash based website.
OpenSourceCMS.com offers a comprehensive catalog in excess of 200 such CMS and web applications, complete with demos. It’s like window shopping for your next web site project. My advice is to take a peek and start toying around with whichever system looks best to you, or looks easy to maintain without hiring a full-time geek to deal with it.
When size matters
All things considered, the small CMS are not a panacea. Sometimes a small CMS is too small to consider for a given project. You have to weigh carefully the need for easy management, the required feature set of the site and the expansion potential of your site project and, finally, making the best use of your own time.
The latter part is very important. If you get stuck trying to do something, you’ll need assistance. The more popular the community using a software, the more prompt a reply you’ll get if you post to a relevant forum. It’s also got to do with security. A large, active, community will discover and patch bugs quickly, whereas a small team might take ages to provide a fix. Of course, it also has to do with support from third party developers. Put bluntly, the more popular a project is, the more developers will produce extension software for it, which makes it even more popular. In short, you can’t beat the network effect.