Content, in one form or another, could be said to date back centuries if you include the written word from its inception, alongside art. However, for the purposes of giving a brief history of its evolution, we will be concentrating on the digital age.
Even here we could look back as far as 1975 and the first instance of electronic publishing, almost a decade before the personal computer and Desktop Publishing came into being.
To really pin down the meaning of CMS, it can be described as any system that allows for electronic creation, organisation and distribution of content.
However, modern content management is all about the web really, although organisations with their own intranet also use CMS to track and update documents and databases company-wide.
In the early days of the web, most sites were made up of static pages, not dynamic as they are today. This required knowledge of HTML to get pages to display correctly and was often linked to a Cold Fusion or MySQL database. The only true dynamic content was to be found on ecommerce sites.
This evolved by the 90s into editors, which allowed people without knowledge of HTML to produce content using a ‘What You See is What You Get’ (WSIWIG), interface so that content could be easily produced and edited.
To a large extent, that is still the case today, although CMS have much more power than they did initially.
Advances in both hardware and software have all contributed to the modern CMS model and gone are the days of complicated and unreliable magnetic tape backups and shared server access from a dumb terminal.
Key features that define a CMS
Some key aspects to a CMS, old or new, which can be used to define what the term encompasses are:
- WYSIWYG editor
- Workflow automation
- Check in/Check out functionality
- Link management
- Multichannel delivery
This is far from being a comprehensive list of everything that might make up a CMS, but gives you some idea of its main components. Looking back over how the technology has evolved over the years is no easy task as there is no one period of time or person that can be credited with its creation.
However, Vignette is widely credited with making the term popular, especially with regard to the webisphere.
According to Vern Imrich, “Back in the late 90s the concept was too undefined - part app dev, part portal and tons of “Web 1.0” bloat, you name it, you could build it!”
Following the excitement and boom and bust of the Dot Com era, CMS came to be better defined and we began to see open source offerings, as well as enterprise-level CMS develop further.
This somewhat ‘split’ the industry into two main types of CMS, enterprise document management (EDMS) and web content management (WCMS), which could be found as both open source and commercial solutions.
Bespoke CMS also became more widely used for certain sectors, for example, real estate. The power of such systems varied from business to business, depending on both size and industry. SMBs tended (and still often do) to rely on free applications such as Wordpress and Drupal, both of which are widely used today.
Since then, technology, the internet and CMS have all seen significant changes and today, CMS tend to have intranet, web and document management contained all in one solution.
The beauty of today’s systems is that they don’t rely heavily on specialist knowledge (such as coding) in order for employees to create, share and publish content. Ecommerce sites are also truly dynamic as they are linked to a database which is updated in real time as sales are made.
Of course, content itself has also come a long way and is one of the most important aspects to developing a website right now. The emergence of cloud and SaaS in recent years also means that CMS no longer have to be based and backed up on-site, but can be stored in a secure data center and accessed from any location, making many people’s job much easier and allowing for hassle-free telecommuting that doesn’t rely on a VPN.
Basically, rather than allowing content to be created by programmers just on the server-side, this means that it can now be created by ordinary administrators who need minimal training to use the CMS.
Like in the early days, this can all be managed with permissions given to various employees to define what they can and can’t create, edit or manage. These days, it also encompasses device management as more and more people carry out their work on a mobile device away from the office.
Many modern CMS’ are stored in the cloud and access is gained through a common interface which can be presented in a browser. CMS has seen significant growth over the past decade and in these days of uber-connection, is becoming more powerful and much more useful for businesses of all sizes.
This has, and will continue to mean that there are a plethora of vendors on the market selling various solutions, something that can cause confusion to the new business coming to the CMS space. However, whilst they may not all be created equally, all have something to offer so if you are looking at investing in a CMS, it’s as well to plan effectively and ask plenty of questions of the vendor before settling on one solution.
As the Gilbane Report points out, "Today, there is not a single, well-defined content management application that has the usual 3-6 major vendors associated with it."
Update: This post was edited for clarity on 19 Jan 2013.