This blog post is part of a series of articles about the evolution of Content Management Systems. showing problems addressed and problems left unsolved by the successive approaches.

In the beginning was the webpage…

There was a lot of excitement about the spread of the Internet. Business owners gained a new channel of presentation. They could showcase their companies to their prospects and customers in a new, modern way.

However, at the very beginning, content creation and presentation were accompanied by a big problem. It was impossible to change even a tiny detail on a website without the help of a specialist. In other words, webpage internals were the developer-only zone. In consequence, updates required much time, money, and effort. They were also error-prone, and, from the business point of view, were often implemented too late.

Because of technically complicated, low-level management, websites before CMSs were not effective communication tools. In the early days of the Internet, information circulation between the business owner and the customer via the website was very limited, or even non-existent. The reason was its multiple mediation; the business owner planned all the changes in the website content by e-mailing their ideas to the developer. They urgently needed new tools to manage the content of their websites themselves to really get in touch with the content and the client.

The Ownership: Web Content Management Systems

To manage websites efficiently, business owners needed to be able to control their content. And they wanted to do it fast, without the participation of web developers every step of the way. Hence, they needed tools enabling website management instead of manually managing their content.

Initially, content management tools were created ad hoc, and until 1995 the niche for a commercial CMS was empty. That year, Vignette created the first fully functional Web Content Management System (WCMS). It addressed perfectly the simple needs of its times, and embraced template-based document publishing for a sole communication channel, the World Wide Web. Since then, the website owner was able to introduce changes, update the information as needed, and adapt the appearance of the website as often as they pleased.

Vignette was the first to fill the niche, but was not the only company in search for making web publishing more accessible. Documentum, FutureTense, and Inso, among others, followed shortly.

It soon became clear that an entirely new software industry emerged from the mix of hand-crafting HTML, custom built systems for each project, and content managed by source control. These solutions had one common goal: they were created to make publishing and updating content easier, and more operative.

The Communication: Web 2.0

A desk cluttered with office equipment, including several laptops.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

The first CMSs were tools providing website owners a possibility of simple and effective web publishing. The visitor could read up-to-date information, e.g., check the opening hours. However, they still could learn from the website as much as from a press advertisement. If the customer needed to contact a store, they could only consult the website to check the phone number and postal address, but could not get a real-time answer. However, allowing users to comment and ask questions would have meant allowing them to co-create content on the web. It would open a new space for interaction and set new challenges. Simply speaking, the idea of a website needed to be reimagined again.

When the Internet entered the age of Web 2.0 to address these expectations, the CMSs needed to follow. They needed to dynamically serve the content answering users’ craving for interaction, as well as to provide two-way communication.

When social media became the central issue, CMS was not only to display user-generated content, but also to personalize the user’s experience. Providing the website owner with an option to manage permissions for editions and access to certain functionalities, provided them an opportunity to enable various types of users to interact with the content differently.

Complexity: The Growth

When the problems of easy and efficient updates, and communication with the users were solved, CMSs were ready to grow and get more user-friendly. The scope of operations they covered expanded significantly. Hence, it was relatively easy to create extensively interactive, increasingly complex websites.

To answer the need of covering the skyrocketing complexity, there were two possible directions. The first solution was to build a marketplace of modules from which users could choose the ones they need. The second was the rise of monolithic CMSs integrating all such modules. CMSs in the noughties followed the latter path. They included:

  • sophisticated data analytics,
  • social media management tools,
  • early days automation,
  • permission management solutions, and
  • translation tools, among others.

The direction of their evolution became clearly visible. They grew. And centralized. Primarily, CMSs still allowed the website owner to create, edit, and manage a large amount of content displayed by the website. While CMS itself did not change in its essence, vendors built whole ecosystems around CMS. Their ecosystems coordinated and integrated almost any analytical software considered useful to digital marketing purposes.

Consolidation: The Beginning of the Era of the Big Boys

The tools consolidating around CMSs were dedicated to the management of complexity. They used all the gathered data to personalize the user’s experience with the content. And to make the content presentation on the website more attractive for the user.

The era when Sitecore and Adobe pioneered their present-day digital experience management systems (DXM) deserves the name of the Era of the Big Boys. They were big not only because of their shared goal of creating all-in-one environments. They were also big because their solutions were intended to manage massive websites.

The first monolith, Communiqué, was developed in 2000 by Day Software. Shortly after, in 2001, Sitecore Corporation was founded, and set its goal to make online marketing even more personalized and effective. The goal of Sitecore CMS was the integration of every media owned or used by the organization; their website, social media channels, their marketing analytics, and automation tools.

Sitecore’s solution remains one of the leading CMSs on the market to this day, whereas Communiqué was acquired by Adobe Systems in 2010. Since then, it has functioned as Adobe CQ and Adobe Experience Manager.

Towards Diversification: The Advent of Mobile

A hand holding a smartphone

Photo by SCREEN POST on Unsplash

On the verge of the mobile revolution, the monoliths perfectly suited the web-centered environment they handled. Everything seemed to be working well, as the web ecosystem toughened and stabilized. Despite the monolithic CMSs being expensive and difficult to implement, they were considered long-term investments making massive website management convenient and effective.

However, a serious problem was hidden at their very heart. The well-established and intuitive boundary of content and presentation layers turned out to be the cause of their decline. They were designed to manage a single channel. And changes in their monolithic architecture were error-prone and costly.

In result, when mobile devices came up on stage, CMSs needed to be reengineered. The biggest challenges turned out to be:

  • diversification of delivery channels, and
  • acceleration of changes in the digital environment.

As the business presence in the digital world was no longer limited to desktop computers, CMSs needed to serve multiple channels. It required the separation of content creation and editing from its presentation. We will sketch the next chapter of the history of CMSs in the next part of this series.