As the demand for easily maintainable content increases, the Content Management System (CMS) industry continues to grow. Expensive proprietary or custom-built systems continue to rule this domain, but open source initiatives such as Open Source Content Management (OSCOM) are targeting goals, such as interoperability and low implementation cost, that proprietary systems won’t touch.

Wyona, a Swiss producer of open source content management software, launched a new initiative for open source community participation in CMS when it held the first OSCOM conference in March 2002. Based on that event’s successful turnout, collaborators from six different CMS projects have joined to host a second conference in Berkeley, CA, on Sept. 25 through 27. Developers and project leads will meet face-to-face to learn more about other CMS projects and contribute to discussions on interoperability between solutions. The OSCOM group believes that promoting standardized methods of content delivery will benefit developers, users, and customers, all of whom will have access to the best solutions, regardless of their particular framework.

We asked two experts, EuroZope Foundation founder Paul Everitt and CMS guru Gregor Rothfuss, to explain this open source CMS movement’s goals and motivations. The open source advocates compare the status of current CMS options—which run the gamut from simple flat-file data storage to robust database solutions—to that of Linux as it flirted with corporate acceptance a few years ago. Everitt and Rothfuss speculate that cost and flexibility integration of custom, in-house applications will once again drive adoption of open source technologies in many corporate shops.

Understanding community goals
Q: In a few words, how would you characterize the open source CMS community?

Rothfuss: The open source CMS community enjoys widespread recognition because it offers products that are useful to a very wide range of people, both fellow techies and end users. This influx of consumers is something most open source projects are unprepared for, and it will be interesting to watch how consumers and producers interact and get used to each other in the future.

Q: What is driving the open source CMS community? Is it a reaction to fill a need or a reclaiming of the proprietary market?

Rothfuss: The open source CMS community is a very diverse bunch. There is no single focus that drives the whole community, with the possible exception of creating solutions that work for the individuals involved in specific projects.

Everitt: Individual projects are driven simply by the joy of creating something people find interesting. Many of the projects find a way to transition into a business story, usually around consulting. This means the people in the project can align their passion and profession, which is a wildly powerful balance. The community of open source content management is driven by a desire to communicate, first, with each other; there are some common issues like interoperability and ease-of-use that we can help each other work on. Second, we want to communicate with the larger industry.

I’ve been on the analyst conference calls, and open source just isn’t on the radar at all. Why? Instead of complaining about a Roswell-like conspiracy, we need to change the equation ourselves. The benefits we bring to content management customers are important, and we need to deliver the message.

Q: What is the defining factor for the open source community and OSCOM’s success?

Rothfuss: Open source brings the passion back into computing that was lost for too long. Open source is about personal growth, exploring new techniques, and sharing one’s insights with others. OSCOM will succeed if it is a continuous source of inspiration for the CMS community, and leads the way with practical solutions.

Enterprise adoption
Q: What trends have you seen in enterprise adoption of open source CMS deployment? Is this a goal for the community?

Rothfuss: I’m constantly amazed to hear of new deployments behind corporate firewalls. In my experience, corporations usually don’t publicize them, though, and since open source CMS can be downloaded for free and anonymously, the projects themselves often have only a vague idea about their installed base. Open source CMS (projects) span the gamut from weekend hacks with no aspirations to very mature frameworks, and getting into the enterprise is definitely a goal for the latter.

Everitt: My favorite trend is the revenge of the DIYers (do-it-yourself techies). Every time we (the proprietary CMS vendor Everitt once worked for) did a bid, the staff that wrote the existing mod_perl or PHP system was our greatest internal champions. With the tough economic climate, there is sentiment to grow what works, rather than dropping a $1.2 million bomb.

Let’s talk about another angle, though, that the mainstream isn’t following—things are different in Europe and Asia. Europe is slated to be a third of the content management market in the next three years, and there is a backlash here against propping up the stock price for American shareholders. There is a desire for independence. Still, the awareness of enterprise adoption simply isn’t there. It’s like the early stages of the (now huge) Linux market. People were doing it, but not talking about it. There certainly wasn’t an agent in the market assembling the big picture and delivering the message to the mainstream. Hopefully, OSCOM can help act as this agent.

Q: What enterprise CMS needs does the open source community wish to address, and what makes open source a contender?

Everitt: Most of the challenge is in the whole product stuff discussed above. From a technology standpoint, most “enterprise” commercial systems are rather uninspiring. Still, there is work to be done. Again, as Phil (Suh, who maintains, the leading forum for discussion about content management) has mentioned to us, all content management, open source or not, has a long way to go on issues such as ease-of-use. I’m eager to hear Phil lay down the challenge at the conference. Open source can and should produce better alternatives for these needs. My list of needs that I think we need better answers for:

A. Integration. How do we connect to all the other content being created in your company? Can we connect and interoperate with each other?
B. Ease of use.
Can we create a secretary-friendly interface?
C. Sharing.
How do ad-hoc groups come together and collaborate in a rich way?
D. Knowledge.
Can we find new ways to assemble the big picture from large volumes of diverse content?

Rothfuss: Open source CMSs are ideally positioned to not only talk about interoperability, but to deliver on it because they don’t have to lock in their customers to their product. Most enterprises are tired of promises of openness. Open source CMS (projects) can and do deliver.

Q: How does this tie into the goals of OSCOM?

Rothfuss: OSCOM was formed by individuals who realized that their respective projects were only one fish in a large pond. OSCOM believes in interop because its members are passionate to work on common solutions.

Affect of OSS on CMS
Q: In general terms, how has open source software affected the way we regard content deployment and availability?

Everitt: Let’s start the answer with a question: What is the leading choice in the content management market? If your answer has a ticker symbol, then you answered wrong. The in-house system is by far the biggest choice. Why? Companies don’t write their own word processors or database engines, so what’s different with content management? Price is a big reason. Million-dollar deployments are like dinosaurs walking down Mission Street. They are a leftover from prehistory.

A second reason is simple, as well: A content management system is very personal and custom for each company. As Peter Dresslar said, “Top-tier content management software: $1 million. Consulting to get the software to work: $1 million. Convincing your employees to use the software correctly: priceless.”

However, the in-house system has limits. A year after launch, most companies begin viewing their custom CMSs as liabilities rather than assets. The trick, then, is to explain to companies that open source projects are a natural extension of the in-house system. Transfer 80 percent, but not 100 percent, of your development costs into the open source cloud. Participate with others. Tap into a constantly improving software base with thousands of knowledgeable people worldwide.

Q: Does this change the rules for content management platforms? If so, how?

Everitt: It has the potential to change the rules. The first step happens when the DIY people get jacked in to the open source thing. If they start participating, rather than starting from scratch, then open source starts showing up as a serious percentage of market share. I’d say this is the tipping point for open source content management.

However, as Phil Suh reminds us, the mainstream doesn’t do CVS checkouts. They don’t buy the product, they buy the whole product. Where can I get credible consulting? What are the support options? Who are the business partners? How do I train my staff? How long have you been in business? All these are more important than the software to the mainstream. Thus, open source needs to answer this challenge without losing the character that makes it unique.

Q: What changes in focus have you observed in the CMS sector? How is open source development equipped to meet new demands?

Everitt: I’ve helped sell large open source content management projects for several years now. The thing that continues to amaze me—companies spend millions of dollars and get something that leaves them pissed off. Open source just needs to get on the RFP lists put out by companies and tap into this discontent. Just like it isn’t cool to have 10 Ferraris in the parking lot anymore, it isn’t cool to say, “We wasted $1.2 million on a CMS that only three employees use.” (Note: This was an actual statement made to me from a person in a telecom company.)

From the software side, I think the biggest change happening is the convergence of many sectors. People want a blend of content management, document management, knowledge management, etc. On the individual side, they see the sheer power of blogging and P2P, and wonder how to tap into it. On the macro side, the semantic Web touts global content management. What does it all mean? I think the time is ripe for some real innovation and fun in what is now known as content management. Somebody’s going to make a lot of money. Hopefully it’s the people giving away everything for free!

Rothfuss: Many corporations have been burned by CMS rollouts. Often, quality content has been very hard to entice, clever approval processes and other CMS functionality notwithstanding. This realization led to renewed focus on the individuals that produce content for a CMS. Open source CMS (projects) have traditionally been more oriented towards getting the content out rather than putting many roadblocks into a users way. The recent emergence of weblogs is such a fresh start. Publishing for individuals replaces bland corporatese, and open source CMSs are there to help this trend.

Q: How will open source change the face of CMS in the future?

Everitt: Open source is far more Darwinistic when it comes to innovation. I think open source is a unique way for wildly different ideas to emerge and prove their utility. I think the same applies for business models. I’ve always said the first wave of open source business models were transient. I’m more curious about what’s next, particularly in content management. Customers will wake up one day and realize they’re on the wrong end of the stick when it comes to who is controlling whom.

Business school teaches software executives that the road to billions is paved by locking in your customers and creating a proprietary advantage in the market. The fundamental role for customers in this view is to prop up the vendor’s stock price. I view open source as a new business relationship between the server and the served.

What’s your CMS solution?

Does your enterprise use open source software for CMS? What were the deciding factors in choosing that route? Post your thoughts in the discussion below.