What’s a CMS Lite?

Mar 01, 2005


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What are we to think when so many products are being marketed these days as a CMS? For starters, content management seems to have won the day over many management software paradigms in the last decade or so. Companies that once did document management, knowledge management, information management, or--dare we remember--data management, all herald their products today as content management software.

When giant firms that once did software version control are now in the top ten CMS vendors, it's a good sign for our industry. But what are we to make of the small specialized systems, fine tuned to organize content in very specialized ways, with intriguing new names like weblogs or "blogs," wikis, news aggregators, news portals, and forums? They surely contain content, and they market themselves as content management systems, but should we accept this marketing ploy? I'd like to call them "CMS Lite," because they get a certain kind of content management problem done very well indeed, but may leave you with an empty feeling when they don't do the whole job.

Lite and Lively
The one thing all CMS-Lite have in common is the incredible ease with which content can be created and posted to the Web. This tends to make them a form of personal CMS. But it goes beyond that, since they all can be managed by groups and are a form of collaboration system. The forum or threaded discussion group grew out of the early newsgroups (now archived as Google Groups), which replaced earlier primitive bulletin board software. The main organizing principle, the core of their information architecture, is a thread, a set of messages that are replies to an original message in chronological order.

The news portal, of which Slashdot.org is the canonical example, reverses the chronological order. Its organizing principle is to show the most recent news first. This was, of course, already a common practice in managing time-perishable content like press releases and news archives for magazines.

The weblog, which began as a personal news portal, also organizes content in reverse chronological order. Like the news portal, blogs usually have a few more pieces of metadata, like author and subject areas, to add some minimal categorization and improve navigating the content. When we add the incredible searchability of weblogs, thanks to the spidering activity of Google on the public Web, and the RSS news feeds by which aggregators can monitor weblogs (and news portals), we see that these forms of CMS Lite have become phenomenal knowledge management and collaboration toolsets.

One of These Things is not Like the Others
The odd man out in our collection of CMS Lite tools is the wiki, and there is nothing quite like it. Ward Cunningham, its principal inventor over ten years ago, called it "the simplest online database that could possibly work." It is only mild overstatement to say that the wiki has no built-in information architecture and no main organizing principle. It consists of a collection of Web pages that may contain hyperlinks to other pages in the wiki--all the rest is up to its users. And some of them have been extraordinarily successful. The publicly editable Wikipedia recently added its one-millionth topical entry page.

With tens of millions of blogs worldwide (12 million in Korea alone), CMS Lites may contain more content than all the major CMS put together. So they certainly have earned the use of our industry name, they incorporate major CMS features, and there are some important reasons they are content management systems:

    • They separate content from presentation (layout). This is a major time saver when the blog needs to be redesigned, because when a change is made to the template, hundreds of pages change together.
    • They often separate the development staging server from the delivery server.
    • They use templates and feed content objects into the templates.
    • They have WYSIWYG editors.
    • They can have multiple authors (team blogs), but rarely have any workflow.

As with CMS, you can buy CMS Lite software and run it on your own Web server or build one with open-source tools, but most are provided as ASP hosting services. The vast majority of bloggers are doing it on free hosts like Blogger's Blogspot.com, now owned by Google.

Until they offer the full range of CMS features, there are also solid reasons for keeping CMS Lites as something special. Nevertheless, some large CMS vendors are adding blog and wiki functionality to defend themselves against market encroachment. Imitation may also be the sincerest form of competition. CMS Lites are here to stay as content management tools.