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As a software developer who has specialised in developing Content Management Systems (CMSs), I often wonder if I’ll ever uncover its Holy Grail. I can’t help but ask myself if there really is an ideal platform on which to build a site. The core concepts remain the same in almost any CMS, but there are always new challenges and new requirements to incorporate emerging web trends.
If the CMS tool is unable to integrate new features the website could lose its momentum and suddenly make you feel like your CMS-powered site is ‘missing out’.
Buying into the CMS
Choosing a CMS is a long-term commitment. You are choosing how your site will be driven and how it will be updated. What your CMS can do affects what you can do. When selecting a CMS, you are committing your content to be stored within this specific system; your data is then manipulated (‘normalised’) into formats suitable for the system’s storage mechanism. From this point onwards, any future decision to switch CMS providers will now need to include the laborious (and often expensive) task of data migration. It is clear to see that choosing a CMS is a commitment and needs to be carefully considered.
The requirement of Web 2.0 has caught out many of the larger CMS products. In my experience, I have seen very powerful and capable systems show their weaknesses when it comes to integrating Web 2.0 features. The end-user experience suddenly feels like a disjointed ‘bolt-on’; a crowbar integration that may do more harm than good for the company’s web strategy.
Indeed, your company may now appear to be addressing new trends, but without full integration into the back-end screens of the CMS, the component lacks full configuration and moderation options. The Web 2.0 feature you wanted may suddenly be nothing more than a static block of text and pictures because any live polling may pull through a negative comment from Twitter or YouTube. To avoid this, integration must be planned and delivered well; otherwise you may get Web 2.0 functionality, but be unsure about what you may have unleashed onto your homepage.
We have come to a point where we know that a CMS should not ignore the benefits of integrated Web 2.0 features and should be extensible for future trends. The first generation of products now appears too config-heavy, too monolithic to really incorporate more dynamic components, but maybe you’re already tied in to this product. If your content is already filed away in one of these systems, you are no doubt hoping for something of Jurassic Park proportions in the product’s new version.
The forgotten users
WordPress has really caused trouble. With its friendly, intuitive interface and just enough capability to be labelled as a CMS Tool, we’ve seen an explosion in blogging no longer limited to just photos of cats (where it all began, strangely enough). Blogs are everywhere and much credit is due to WordPress’ own clean-yet-extensible interface and lightweight install.
A monolithic first-generation CMS is not quite there yet however; the process of creating a page is hindered by an overbearing workflow, an over-complicated permissions framework and an interface so self-defeating that any author is reluctant to spend any extra time with the system.
First generation Content Management Systems may have prioritised the website user experience but they almost all neglect the CMS user. It is these users who will be putting in the hours to helping the website develop. The CMS author needs to be proactive, after all, updating content may not be the sole reason of their employment. If these users are not active the website may lack the ‘freshness’ it ultimately needs.
Like many types of “Enterprise Software”, the CMS user is often overlooked as the decision on which tool to use is often made higher up. Yet these budding authors may be honing their talents with their blogging site elsewhere instead of with the company’s CMS.
Secret to longevity
The key seems to be that the core concepts haven’t changed. We’ll always want to edit, review and publish pages, but we’ll always want to try out new features that are as yet undefined. We are more familiar with what makes a good or bad CMS tool and have been tempted by the dynamism of open source products…if only they offered the security of 24 hour customer support.
Buying into a CMS therefore should no longer be just buying a product but buying into the immediate and long term plans of the CMS provider; the secret to longevity is based on forming a healthy relationship where both parties share the same strategy. You will effectively be driven along its own roadmap, taking in its new features in the new releases.
Whereas the first generation of CMS tools has helped the developer isolate what is meant by ‘core’, the second generation needs to deliver this core in a clean, simple and effective manner. When this ‘core’ is done well, it could provide the skeleton for each and every new component that may suddenly be the next new ‘killer app’ that your CMS author can’t wait to try out.