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 terribly designed bristol board presentation 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, 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.
Developers need to realize that, as Tim O’Reilly has made clear, we are in an age of perpetual beta and essentially, a state of permanent incompletion. Think of how often we as users are prompted to update our software, whether that be 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.
What the developers selling custom content management systems aren’t realizing is that platform computing is dead. The Web 2.0 is too focused on open source and user generated content (Sorry Microsoft). 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. In other words, because users are so immersed in computing their habits influence the market.
The smarter developers who do offer a custom CMS will frequently and consistently update their product by changing, removing and adding features (keeping in line with the perpetual beta model). 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 (WordPress and it’s countless plugins for instance).
I know what you’re thinking – won’t there always 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 do not and indeed there is a market for this kind of venture. More importantly though, we cannot overlook the fact that the idea of open source software is very new (relatively speaking of course). This is a system that older generations, namely the baby boomers, don’t always understand and for that matter, trust. For the time being, this is where the custom CMS can sell, although as harsh as it sounds, the market for this software is quite literally dying (or at least, retiring).
On the other hand, my own and younger generations are collectively creating and managing a product that gets better by the second. Open source software is a system we can rely on and for the contributing developers even feel a sense of ownership to. I along with thousands of other users strongly believe in open source software and recognize the potential it has. Conclusively, it is my prediction that future generations will have more faith in open source applications and user contributions and therefore, knowing the power of such tools as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla, I cannot justify investing a significant amount of time into developing a custom CMS. And neither should you.