White Whale Web Services: Our problem with CMS

A screenshot of our marathon CMS IM.

The basis for this article was a marathon IM discussion between Jason, Alex and Donald. If you're interested in that sort of thing, you may read the transcript.

Content should be managed by people, not computers.

We say that a lot, and as a result we've become known to some degree as a company that "doesn't believe in content management systems"— in some ways that assessment is accurate, and in some ways not.

It's important that we be clear about what we're opposed to. Obviously content has to be managed, and if a system can make that easier, that's great. It is not the abstract notion of a Content Management System that we aren't sure we believe in. What we are opposed to are over-developed, functionality-stuffed CMS applications that, in an attempt to be all things to all potential clients, wind up to be challenging to users and—in most of the cases we've seen— present their own set of limitations.

There's no reason to name names; there are some useful and well-thought-out tools out there, some developed by friends of ours, and we'd never attempt to paint all our colleagues in the web-dev field with the same broad brush. Nevertheless, it's our belief that there is a race among the top CMS providers to demonstrate the largest feature sets— under the assumption, probably correct, that CMS's are often chosen IT-style on the basis of which feature set is the largest.

So the solutions wind up overbuilt, and theoretically able to do almost anything: the people who use them wind up only taking advantage of a small percentage of available features, and having to navigate an interface filled with buttons, tabs and options they'll never use.

Our belief is that the ideal CMS solution would start small, with enough functionality to do the job and no more. (Human beings, in the form of Web people, will always be available to help with unusual needs, and some people will always call for help no matter how advanced the CMS is.)

Then over time, as needed, features can be added, ideally by your own development staff (who will have participated closely in the building of the application, and will be qualified to extend it with or without our help).

Most Google applications (like Gmail and Google Calendar) follow this formula: start simple, and add features as you go, as users become comfortable with the basic feature set. The same is true of Mozilla Firefox: the basic Firefox Web browser is a relatively simple application, but it comes with a world of extensions, most created by other developers, that a user can choose from as needed for what he or she wants to do on the Web. It seems pretty clearly to be an approach to software development (online or off) that works.

But it conflicts with the profit motive. Companies that market CMS solutions naturally want to sell to as many customers as possible. So they need the accordingly large feature sets, and their customers wind up working overtime to understand the tools.

A relationship like the one White Whale has with our higher education clients helps us avoid that trap. We're providing a service, not a product, usually at a flat fee; our interest is in helping our clients get the best solutions independent of the profit motive.

Agree? Disagree? E-mail and let us know.

White Whale Web Services

White Whale Web Services, Inc.   •   1904 Franklin Street, Suite 500  •  Oakland, CA 94612  •  510-808-4028  •  web@whitewhale.net