Content Management Systems — software that helps people author and publish websites — likely dates back farther than you think. The problem is, it wasn’t quite called that yet.
Caught up in the excitement and fervor of the Internet, the MIT Media Lab began planning a virtual event in October of 1995, just in time for their 10th anniversary. They wanted to create a digital space they could invite others into. Inspired by lifestyle stories typically found in coffee table photography books, the Media Lab created a table of experiences from the cyberspace age in a website called Day in the Life of Cyberspace. The site was divided into topics, each with stitched together content sent in from people from all over the world, recounting through images or text how the web and the Internet had changed their life.
The Media Lab thought it might be interesting to pair their website with a coffee table book of their own, so they turned to resident expert Rick Smolan. Smolan had garnered a reputation for immersive photo essays in the ’80’s with a series of Day in the Life photo-essays that partially served as inspiration for the project. Smolan joined the project early on, as a photographer and advisor, but left abruptly in August, just months before the site was set to launch.
Though he didn’t say it at the time, Smolan fee that MIT was too permissive in what content it planned to post on its website. In allowing anyone to submit anything, they provided an experience that was too unfocused. That was, of course, part of its intent, the Media Lab wanted to show a diversity of experiences delivered directly from the people — something the web had only recently made possible. But Smolan saw the web as an interactive publishing medium, not as a digital community.
Using his connections as a photographer, Smolan embarked on an independent vision of the project, building a team of editors from publications like Time, Newsweek, and the Associated Press and backed by big corporate sponsors. Smolan’s site, a multi-million dollar project that launched in February of 1996, was called 24 Hours in Cyberspace. In many ways it was like its predecessor (Smolan never mentioned MIT in the press leading up to the event, instead taking most of the credit for himself), but in others it was different.
On the day of launch, Smolan sent out a swarm of professional photographers all over the world — including then Vice President Al Gore’s wife Tipper Gore — to take pictures, upload them digitally and send them over the wire to a central hub of editors, publishers, and designers housed in San Francisco. The best of the images were curated and paired with strong editorial an added to the website in real time, updated every hour. The images weren’t thrown together in any order either. Designers worked to arrange them into beautiful and meticulous magazine style layouts tailored to the content and images themselves.
It was a publishing experiment, a vision of what publishing on the web could ultimately look like when editorial experience was merged with interactive and impressive technological capabilities. A staff of 150 people swarmed the headquarters for the site, buzzing with activity to get everything ready and make sure it all looked as professional as possible.
Clement Mok and Samir Arora of NetObjects were two stars of the show that day. . It was Mok’s templates that defined the look and feel of the site. There were 28 to chose from, and Mok metickously laid them out with editorial constraints and exact image sizes. Arora manned a post at the center of the experiment acting, in one participants description, “like a symphony conductor,” orchestrating the complicated bits of code into a cohesive package.
They were both part of a new startup called NetObjects, which provided the software that let the team of designers and editors assemble pages into those magazine layouts without having to write a single line of HTML. Instead, NetObjects’ software used a visual tool where editors could drag and drop images and content. It one of the earliest examples we have of what we would now call a content management system. When 24 Hours in Cyberspace launched, it didn’t even have a name yet. By the end of 1996, NetObjects would begin selling it as their flagship product, Fusion.
Fusion enjoyed a metric rise upon its release, accompanied by a wave of press and popularity familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of how the Silicon Valley hype cycle works. But the product did stand on its own, and it soon became one of the most popular web authoring tools on the market. But it wouldn’t stand on its own for long.
The struggling, Austin-based technology startup Vignette stumbled on a bit of luck not long after the release of Site Publisher. In one of his frequent cold calls, founder Ross Garber called up someone at CNet, largely on a web. By sheer chance, he was connected to somebody there that worked on their in-house authoring and publishing CMS, known as Prism.
Without the resources to package, market, and distribute Prism on their own, CNet decided to hand it over to Vignette to sell for them (in exchange for a stake in the company, of course). Within a year Vignette had retooled Prism into two products: StoryBuilder and StoryServer.
One of the earliest challenges with content management system was simply explaining what they did. In practice, they often would connect data stored in a separate database with templates automatically rendering out the webpage. But for an industry that largely got by on editing HTML files directly, that could be a bit confusing. So the early CMS’s found interesting ways to pitch themselves to the public.
StoryBuilder, for instance, was billed as “personalization” software, because in addition to publishing pages it let you track customer data as they interacted with your website.
Others companies — such as Documentum and FileNet — entered the web market by way of existing software they maintained for general computing and networks. They often sold website publishing as only one piece of a “document management” solution, a complicated, all-in-one software package for distributing documents, data, and information through large, enterprise organizations.
NetObjects positioned Fusion as more of a widespread, consumer tool. In their distribution, they often focused on the ability to easily design pages with a drag and drop, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface, “software powerful enough for the most savvy Web artist, yet so easy to use that a Web novice can master it.” That let them target consumers new to the web without the bells and whistles of complex software suites.
Once the upstarts had demonstrated what was possible, larger companies began to enter the market. The most prominent of these were Adobe’s PageMill and Microsoft FrontPage, both of which combined an HTML editor and a publishing platform. These tools were created for everyday consumers and small businesses looking to build an online presence, not Fortune 500 companies and kept things mostly focused on the authoring experience.
But Adobe and Microsoft were also able to run their software more like loss leaders to a larger product offering, driving the market price way down. Pioneering companies like Vignette and NetObjects were forced to specialize in the enterprise market, or lower their costs to appeal to the same user base that Microsoft and Adobe were addressing. The market outside of the big players fractured and, in most cases, moved towards niches.
It would be almost a decade before a new wave of open source content management systems broke through, and turned the model upside down.