Interview with Deane Barker on Headless CMS and the Future of Content Management

What are the current trends in the CMS industry? Is headless CMS a good model and what challenges might it bring? Deane Barker shares his thoughts on headless CMS and the evolution in content management.

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Bryan SoltisPublished on May 11, 2017

At Kentico Roadshow in Chicago, I met with Deane Barker, Chief Strategy Officer at Blend Interactive and author of the Web Content Management book, to discuss his views on the future of content management and what role the headless CMS will play in it. 

If you want to know how to avoid failures in website content projects, take a look at Deane's presentation, Why Content Projects Fail and what we can do about it, at the end of this blog post.

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Hello everyone, I want to thank you for joining us at a live interview that we're doing at the Kentico Roadshow Chicago, and I'm here with Deane Barker who is a world-renowned author. He recently wrote a book and he actually was our keynote speaker today. Welcome, Deane.

Thank you. Thank you very much, glad to be here.

First, why don’t you just tell people a little bit about yourself, what you do, and maybe what you talked about in our keynote for anyone who wasn't able to make it (to Kentico Roadshow).

Sure. Well, I do the systems integration for content management at a company called Blend Interactive. We’re based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We do content management integrations and we've done that basically full-time for 12 years. I've personally been working in content management for over 20 years, since 1995, and then on the side, I do a lot of speaking and a lot of writing about content management. 

Well, that’s quite a vast experience with the CMS industry. I'm sure you've seen trends come and go over the decades. What are the current trends that you see in the CMS industry today? What are the big trends that you kind of see happening or are going to happen?

Yeah, so trends tend to go in waves. I mean, if we step back 15 years, the big trend would have been the switch from a decoupled CMS to a coupled CMS. You know, we used to have content management systems that were really static site generators that were just pushing flat files into a delivery layer. So that would go 15 years back. If we go 10 years back, there was really the shift towards a coupled architecture where content repository and content delivery were two sides of the same system. If we go five years back, what we're looking at is the rise of content personalization where you don't just have one version of your content— you supposedly have four or five, which were tailored for different audiences. And then, in the last one or two years, what's remarkable is that decoupled content management has really started to make a comeback, and then there's been the rise of headless CMS, which really is full circle back to when we were building kind of database-driven custom content management websites back in the late 90s. So, what's funny is the latest trend is kind of we've come full circle now—we're doing it better now than we were doing it. It's really kind of a callback to what we were doing 15 or 20 years ago. 

Actually, it’s funny that you mentioned the headless CMS. I wanted to get your take on, you know, what are your thoughts on headless CMS? Do you think it's a good model and do you think it's a good way that the industry is moving? But more importantly, how well do you think that fits with a company that maybe only does a traditional CMS? And can they live side-by-side or does it have to be one or the other?

I think that the headless CMS marketplace is largely a result of advances in client-side programming. I think it's the number one reason that it has come about and kind of the rise in multichannel. We have so many different channels now that we push content to. If you look in the last five or six years—there’s the rise of mobile apps and the rise of social media. It used to be—we just had a website, we came to a website, full stop, and that’s the end of it. But now we have so many different channels we’re trying to push content into and additionally, we can do so much on a client (side). We do so much with JavaScript-based programming and JavaScript-based frameworks that we're really getting to the point where people want to do custom website and custom delivery environments, and just use content as a service and deliver content. I think really what remains to be seen is where headless fits in relation to the traditional single website model. If you have a single website and a single content repository and you're not pushing content into a bunch of different channels—then is headless the right choice for you? If you look at Kentico in particular—you have Kentico EMS, which is the core content management product—you solve that problem. You also have Kentico Cloud, which is a headless offering—should everybody rush right into headless? I don't necessarily think so. I think there's still the vast majority of customers who’d just buy something like Kentico EMS, which is a good solution for a solved problem. I think the people who are going to use headless content management are people solving more interesting distributed problems. I think as the plethora of delivery channels continues to fracture and we get more and more delivery channels, I think headless becomes a much more attractive offering. But right now, you know, if you have a single website and you’re delivering a single repository of content, certainly take a look at headless but don't think that you have to do it—there are good solutions for that problem already. 

So, in what my kind of take on it is—I’m curious to see if you agree—that the headless CMS is just another tool, and in my opinion, I don't think that any company should definitely lock themselves into one particular development model if they don't have to. The headless just gives you another option to do that. Certainly, it's not a tool that you can use for every job, but for some jobs, I think it's going to be a fantastic solution because of the way you can disseminate information very quickly and easily to multiple channels, or mobile apps, smartphones, and billboards, and whatever else you want to send information to—you can store that in the headless CMS in a central repository. I'm just curious on how companies are going to be able to kind of wrap their brain around that, because in my experience, a lot of companies are locked into “this is what my content is and this is how I use my content”. And the headless CMS really gives you the option to think of your content as just another resource within your company, then you choose how you want to use it.

I think what we're going to see when we look at the penetration of the headless over the next two, three, or four years is a lot of traditional CMS vendors adding headless capabilities to their core product. Now, Kentico went a different direction—you guys created a from-scratch CMS product in Kentico Cloud, it really had no relation to your core CMS product. I am still waiting—I suspect it's coming where there will be an integration between those two sides. For the record, I have no inside knowledge here but I suspect we're going to see a moment where you can manage content in Kentico EMS and then broadcast that content to Kentico Cloud. That's a model that some other vendors are following and then I think that's a model where traditional vendors that are looking at headless right now move into. They say continue managing your content in our traditional model, but we're going to give you this new channel option where you can take your content—you can syndicate it to the Cloud and then use it at multiple different things. I see that coming. Now, Kentico is interesting in that they created their delivery channel, and then at some point I think they're going to backfill that gap. The other vendors are sticking with the core product, and then they're going to create that and fill the gap in between. So Kentico went in a little different manner, but I suspect that moment is coming.

And, you know, the headless CMS movement in this evolution of how content is being managed and used in the world is rather disruptive to some traditional CMS vendors. It's obviously rather disruptive that they have to decide how they’re going to accommodate these needs and new requirements that the companies want. But from an implementer standpoint, what do you think are maybe some of the biggest challenges of going to a headless CMS—what are some of the biggest hurdles that someone's going to have to try overcome?

Well, we have this great term headless CMS that we use to kind of categorize the repository, but there's no real name for the other side of it. If you look at a headless CMS environment—you really have two sides of it, you have the management environment and then you have the delivery environment. So what do we call it? We don't really have the accepted name for the delivery environment beyond just generic channel. And I think one of the biggest dangers right now, or one of the biggest concerns, is that you have all these integrators trying to figure out—there's a vacuum in there at the delivery layer—what are we going to use to deliver the content. I think what we're going to see very quickly are frameworks popping up, where people say these are website delivery frameworks that you can plug into different headless vendors. Now, that brings up another point—is someone going to push for a headless delivery standard, a standardized API? And right now, there are a bunch of old-school content management guys just freaking out because we have two already—we have JCR, the Java Content Repository, and we have CMIS, which stands for Content Management Interoperability Standard. So we already have two repository API standards, and are headless vendors going to implement either one of those, and if they do that, will that then extend into common frameworks for delivering content out of headless CMS? I’ll be further interested to see will vendors embrace API standards? Because if they do—does that make them interchangeable? If I'm a vendor and I embrace CMIS, and a bunch of open-source frameworks pop up to deliver content via a CMIS compliant headless CMS, as a vendor could I be swapped out for another, and is that a position I want to put myself in? That’s going to be an interesting battle.

There’s definitely a lot going on in the Web Content Management space without a doubt—the emergence of headless CMS and the evolution, and the vendors are trying to keep up with the demands for the industry. But they’re also trying to predict the new ones coming forward, and it just so happens that here I am, holding your new book, Web Content Management by Deane Barker. So this is a great overview of web content management and about the systems, and the features, and what are the best practices that you can use. Would this be a good starting point for someone who’s trying to understand these kind of rapid evolution changes that are happening?

I think so, for a couple different reasons. Number one: it's really vendor neutral. I, of course, work with a number of different vendors and I specialize in a number of different vendors but we wrote the book from a vendor neutral standpoint. And the reason for that is that when I think of content management, there are content problems that really transcend vendor and transcend implementation. Things like workflow and things like templating exist in any situation regardless of particular vendor. Additionally, I think even if you do have a preferred vendor—if you have a vendor you work with over all others—I think a great way to understand your own vendor is by understanding how other companies might do things. You know, they say that the number one way to learn about the English language is to learn another language. Suddenly, you start saying, “Oh, holy cow, they solve the same problems in these ways”. And I think that's really what the book does—even if you have a system that you work with or in-house at your organization if you work with one particular system, learning how other systems work and learning what separates a vendor-specific problem from a generalized content problem—I think it’s a valuable skill to know.

That was excellent information from Deane Barker, web content management guru and superior mind all-around. I really want to thank you, Deane, for coming by and for a fantastic keynote—the crowd really enjoyed it. If you want to, you can check out O’Reilly for Deane’s book, Web Content Management. Thank you very much!

And, do not forget to watch Deane's keynote presentation for Kentico Roadshow as well: 

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Bryan Soltis

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