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Custom Content Management Systems Are Dead

I recently had an interview with a 30 something for a graphic design position. The company was a one person shop and was built on selling a custom content management system (CMS), which is something I have seen at another company I worked for. Maybe it’s because I’m ten years younger but based on what I have experienced, I’m not convinced this sort of business can last.

It’s a heart warming story when a developer tells us of the efforts that have been put into a product that has has been in development for 10+ years: the struggles, the evolution and improvement of features etc. But what we’re witnessing is the end of an old dream. I see it all the time – people who become so invested in pet projects that they oversee the poor business model it’s based on (an image of a failing entrepreneur, a bogus product and a terribly designed bristol board seen on Dragon’s Den comes to mind). Let me be clear though. I’m not saying these developers made poor decisions to begin with or even face any trouble ahead of them, but simply that they come from a different time. I’m sure most of them have sold their own CMS system to a few clients in the past and will continue to do so for their remaining career. What I’m getting at is that this kind of business is quickly becoming obsolete, so for someone like myself for instance, this won’t work, at least, not in the long term. Recall, some of these developers have put in 10+ years into a product that is often sub par to something that is now free!

What we’re witnessing is the end of an old dream.

Developers need to realize, as Tim O’Reilly first pointed out, that we are in an age of perpetual beta and a state of permanent incompletion. Think of how often we as users are prompted to update our software, whether that be for our operating system (something we used to have to wait 4 years for from Microsoft) or software like Firefox and iTunes. Software companies change their features on a daily basis, even if the change is seemingly trivial. In fact, that’s what it’s all about: small, non obtrusive, frequent changes.

Developers selling custom content management systems aren’t realizing that platform computing is dead. The web is too focused on open source and user generated content. This is where feedback becomes very effective. Software companies are no longer developing what they think is valuable but instead what we think is valuable. Users are so immersed in computing that their habits now influence the market in real time.

The smarter developers who do offer a custom CMS will frequently and consistently update their product by changing, removing and adding features based on usage. Ultimately however, their efforts cannot compete against open source applications that invite users world wide to come together and collectively build a product that improves every day.

We are in an age of perpetual beta and a state of permanent incompletion.

But won’t there still be a market for a custom CMS? After all, private corporations don’t trust applications built by the public, do they? For the moment, many don’t and so there is a market for this kind of private venture. However, relatively speaking, open source software is very new. It is a system that older generations, namely the baby boomers, don’t always understand and for that matter, trust. So for the time being, this is where the custom CMS can sell, but the market for this software is quite literally dying, or at least retiring.

Meanwhile my own and younger generations, together, are creating and managing products that get better by the second because open source software is a system we can rely on and even feel a sense of ownership from. I along with so many others strongly believe in open source software and recognize the potential it has. Future generations will have more faith in open source applications and therefore, knowing the power of such tools as WordPress, Drupal, Github and Joomla, I cannot justify investing a significant amount of time into developing a custom CMS. And neither should you.

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