James Robertson of Aussie services firm Step Two Designs recently published a nice article covering the state of the market for open-source CMS. James is a prolific publisher of papers on CMS, KM, and Intranets, and a consistenly informative voice in the CMS community. Following is the CMSWire review and commentary on this article. The Primary Statement: Open-source CMSs have now matured to the point where they should be considered side-by-side with commercial alternatives. According to the article, the benefits of open-source CMS include:
  • Free or Cheap
  • Flips the spending model (kinda) - puts your budget into shaping the solution (services) versus purchasing licenses and support
  • Easy to customize - code is open
  • Avoids vendor lock-in (e.g., Microsoft)
  • Pool/share resources across departments (does this ever happen?)
  • Potential ease of integration
  • Future proofing your investment
  • ...and a number of other std. open-source benefits
The one item in this list that I would contend is the "future-proofing". There are two obvious sides to this: (1) many web CMS vendors will go out of business and many ECM vendors will merge or be acquired in the next 3 years; (2) I'm not sure how much time you've spent on source-forge, but there are many, many stale projects out there, effectively "out of business". As James points out, "escrow" agreements for failed software companies' source-code are becoming increasingly available. So either way the outcome may be the same: Your staff can gain access to a huge chunk of source-code that they don't understand, don't like (its not theirs), and are fairly unlikely to ever do anything with. Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic, but I would not really consider that future proofing. Whether or not you ever obtain the source-code, the likelihood that your staff will ever do anything with it is slim and as soon as your key staff turns-over (in 6-18 months), the new folks are definitely not going to want to touch it. Practically speaking, I believe the only way to future-proof your investment in a CMS product is to buy it from a vendor that is very unlikely to disappear. Next the article discusses some of the weakness of open-source CMS. Most of these points are well-known, and much loved by the likes of Microsoft. Here are a few highlights:
  • Less mature
  • Scant documentation
  • Poor usability (which James rightly highlights as a major issue)
  • Danger of over investment (this is a good one!)
  • Lack of a future (hmmm, see above)
To this list I would like add one very important point: open-source CMS and open-source products in general are not strong on features. My theory on this is that the developers who create these products, are... um developers. Typically there isn't much of a product management influence around. Consequently, products are shaped a bit more by "cool technology", latest standards (e.g., JSR-170), "my pet problem to solve", etc. [Mature] commercial products on the other hand are shaped by MRD's and refined and broadened by top-tier customers' feature requests. This is a massive difference between open-source and commercial software. I'm not anti-open-source by any means, but when it comes to complex systems with a strong blend of business and technical requirements (read CMS), I would say that it is the tendency of open-source geeks to deliver slightly less on the business than the technical side. Next in the article is an important point: there are open-source CMS products and there are "open-source" CMS products. The latter (in quotes) are more bait than product and are typically created by a single company, to advertise their skills and attract new customers ...who will be offered non-open-source features, at a price. They are a business model, not a community effort. Its my opinion that the later choice is a better choice, if one were to pursue an open-source CMS. Why? Because the product will probably be shaped more by business requirements than by technology trends. On the flip side, if there is a lack of community support, the product likely suffers from the same imminent death threat as any other small, commercial CMS operation. The article concludes with the basic statement that open-source CMS is a viable option, but that outside of government and small business, such products probably stand little chance. The short answer from James: "the system must match the business needs". But do they? Are there open-source systems out there that really cut the mustard? I've not seen them all by any means, but from my experience and from the majority of anecdotal evidence I've garnered, they tend not to. The reasons from my perspective: lack of features, poor usability, and good old job security. Just after the "Why doesn't it do <fill in the blank>?" and the "How the hell do I use this thing?" is the old expression that "Nobody ever got fired for recommending IBM". Thanks to James for a great article. You may also like another (very McGovern'esque) article by James entitled "Losing sight of the content in a content management system". Open-source or not, James says: make your content useful. CMS Product List, the List of lists of lists.