Friday, November 15, 2013

Happy 10th Birthday, Magnolia

In theory, I would have had 10 years to write this blog post, right? But in reality, I am writing this just days before we want to publish it. Things are busy. So this is it: it's been exactly 10 years since the first release of Magnolia, back on November 15, 2003 - my brother's birthday. No coincidence, like so many things we do at Magnolia. People are important here. "Here" initially was Basel, Switzerland, a unique place on the corner of Switzerland, bordering Germany and France, with the river Rhine flowing right next to our office.

Magnolia started as an experiment, the idea that we could build a CMS that would work better than any other CMS on the planet. When we released version 1.0, it certainly didn't. But in life, it is important to know where you want to go, and then take the first step. Releasing a software product into the wide open www was unprecedented for us, so it did not matter so much what we released, it mattered that we released. The first step was taken, and as you all know, many more would follow.

Things have changed. 13 years ago we were wearing ties.
We started Magnolia development with a small team - four people were involved in the first release. Pascal and myself guided and communicated the process; Sala and Sameer implemented. We thought it would be cool to release our own product, and let me tell you: it was – and it still is.

We couldn't have imagined that we would still be here 10 years after that,  working on fulfilling our original vision of a highly usable, highly flexible content management system for the enterprise. Like the river Rhine that flows through Basel, the market is in a state of constant flux. We have seen the rise of social, mobile, cloud and many other trends. With it, Magnolia has evolved from its early days, both as a company and as a product.

The barn where it all started. Our office on the first floor. Note abundance of windows.
What hasn't changed is the unique relationship between Pascal and myself. As anybody who has ever met us will readily confirm, we are two very different characters. And it is this combination that has made us strong. We always approach a challenge from opposite ends, and are forced to understand whatever we want or have to do from different perspectives. I believe that this leads to better decisions. Having somebody to discuss with, who shares your experience and history is invaluable. Together we have weathered incredible stunts, and we came out stronger every time. In one of the presentations before Magnolia's time, Pascal was standing in front of about 20 people giving a product demo. Standing in the small server room above the presentation room, I had to restart the server every time the demo got stuck – which was pretty much after every second click. In frantic but secret communication we needed to coordinate our actions to ensure the presentation was a success. It certainly made us trust in each other's abilities when it comes to presenting under stress ;-)

In our early years, survival of the company was under constant threat. We were a small,  local web agency with technology knowhow, and our revenue came from building websites, custom software, hosting and managing infrastructure. But we kept working on Magnolia, cross-financed by our services. In these early years we didn't grow - in fact, we had to lay off staff until in 2006, only 4 people remained on board – and our sole focus became Magnolia. At the time, survival meant things like not paying wages and selling the Apple shares that I had bought in times of plenty. The great thing about hitting rock bottom is that from then on, things can only get better. And getting better they did.

Retreat to Ticino in 2006 – here, Pascal and I came up with the idea to sell a Magnolia Enterprise Edition. It changed our future.
As they say, the rest is history: these days, there are about 60 members of staff, and "Here" has become a lot of places – our software is used around the globe, and we have staff working in the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, South Africa and China. Our focus on people hasn't changed – and we are humbled by and indebted to all the Magnolians who have made and continue to make Magnolia such a great place to work at. I for one am looking forward to the next 10 years, hopefully with a lot of you coming along for the journey. Thank you.

Magnolians enjoying lunch on the terrace. Pascal and Boris occasionally cook for the whole team, an event known as "Chefs as Chefs". 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The future of content management: industry insider predictions

Rasmus Skjoldan, Creative Lead at MOC has asked a group of people about their thoughts on the future of our industry.

Screenshot of slides that collect CMS industry insider statements about the future of content management

Background to this is his task to create NEOS, the new UI for Typo3, a CMS. Rasmus is a great guy, so I was happy to provide my input even though at the time we were just releasing Magnolia 5, our own take on a CMS that is ready for the future. In case you have missed it, here is my statement, meant to inspire the next generation(s) of a great UI, no matter which CMS you work on. It is also a reflection on how the world of web publishing has changed, and how many of the CMS's really haven't.

The CMS has become the center, the hub, the nexus of digital communication. Everybody has become a content creator. Organizations have become publishers to succeed in digital marketing, services and sales.
The world is on the move – it has become mobile and ever faster changing. Yet most software products are still stuck in the 90's style "death by dropdown" user interaction paradigm. Software creators need to move on, need to provide the flexibility to keep pace with the evolving web. We need to provide usability that inspires great content and allows people to produce great customer experiences.
Leave the 90s behind. Define the future. Be bold. Change the world.

CMSWire picked it up and the predictions became a highly successful post for them. You can find all of the quotes & insights in Rasmus' slides on Slideshare. It was a great initiative, and I thank Rasmus for pulling it off.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Why Magnolia CMS version 5 is like no other enterprise software before

Two weeks ago, Magnolia has released version 5 of its long-awaited CMS, to wide industry acclaim. Let's have a quick look on what makes Magnolia 5 such an unparalleled product in todays enterprise software market.

Win the feature war, lose your users.

We have worked on Magnolia 5 for years, starting with early designs back in 2008. The reason it took so long is because the market for content management keeps changing rapidly. To stay competitive, a vendor typically needs to work on features rather than on the platform or user experience. This is why typical CMS's look like they were developed in the 90's, are overcrowded with layers of options and a "death by drop-down menu" style of user interaction design, cobbled together by acquisitions of various components to build an "integrated (!?) software suite".

Topics in the CMS space in the last 5 years

So, which topics did we see since we first started thinking about Magnolia 5? In the last 5 years we have seen the rise of cloud computing, social media and mobile, the gradual switch of CMS selection responsibility from IT to marketing, the late but stellar rise of Javascript as a language for application development on the client, and constantly shifting "most important" aspects of the CMS ecosystem like content vs. meta data, navigation vs. search, SEO, analytics, personalization, experience management, suite vs. best-of-breed etc. As a vendor, trying to follow the latest analyst induced buzzword trending on twitter is a subscription to insanity.

Independent thinking needs independence

In order to stay sane, radical and independent thinking is essential. Luckily, Magnolia's independence (we have no external funding) and sustainable business model (we only sell license subscriptions) allows us to think long-term.  And so we did, back in the summer of 2011, when we decided to completely start from scratch with our designs for Magnolia 5, and think "touch first".

The driving question behind the gorgeous Magnolia 5 user interface was "what would a CMS look like if it were designed for touch". This question lead to a very interesting shift in how we approached the interaction design of Magnolia, because just "translating" a desktop UI to touch doesn't work.

Think touch first

To create a UI that doesn't suck on mobile devices, you need to think touch, think mobile, think limited screen estate, think task-focussed apps. 3000 mockups later we have released Magnolia 5. Not only does it work on tablets, it also has solved many issues users typically face in any other CMS on the market today. By "applifying" the user interface, we simultaneously make the product much easier to use, much easier to personalize and much easier to extend with custom functionality.

HTML5-based Magnolia 5 Apps to the rescue

Magnolia 5 is built to orchestrate your digital marketing, sales and service. By creating custom apps, you can easily achieve that, and with it add significant business value to your virtual presence. The combination of apps with the Pulse (our messaging system) and Favorites, which allow you to create custom "recipes" of related tasks makes using Magnolia both powerful and highly enjoyable.

Magnolia 5: a platform for future growth

As a platform for future development, Magnolia 5 is here to stay with us for many years to come. We envision a range of apps to be made available by us as well as our worldwide network of certified Magnolia partners. Already first partners have started developing apps for Magnolia, and we expect to see initial results at the Magnolia conference in September in Basel. I hope I'll see you there, showing your first Magnolia app. Meanwhile, why don't you go and download Magnolia 5 to see what the future of enterprise software looks like – on your desktop, your touch device and on the move.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

3 Reasons Why Open Source Software Delivers Where Proprietary Software Fails

"Yes, you have to pay a fee for my software but I’m going to make sure that it is available, running fast and up-to-date”, says Michael Assad, CEO of Agility CMS, in a recent article of his. The piece explores the differences between Open Source and proprietary content management systems, voicing concerns about OSS and showcasing benefits of proprietary. I don’t agree with Mr Assad at all: In the long term, proprietary software is dead. The whole model is so deeply flawed that I am amazed that people still buy proprietary CMSs. Let me explain why.

Open Source is the better development model

It starts with how a content management system is developed. Nobody ever sees the source code of a proprietary CMS. It is potentially bound to be horrible, because developers can easily and comfortably hide behind their unintelligible, bad code. They make sure they keep their job. In open source, there will always be people looking at your code - and you know it, so you better make sure it is at least decent.

Developers are artists and craftsmen. They want to share their work and discuss the best way to tackle a challenge. They know of the cost of writing bad software. In an open source company, they will avoid it because their name is attached to the code, for everybody to see. Any future employer can look at how they work and if their skills are any good. Does this help writing better code than in a proprietary company? You bet it does. In your company, developers are probably forbidden to show their code to anybody outside the company. That is bad for them, bad for the code and bad for your product.

Open Source is open and extensible by default

Open Source code is written to be extended, because that is how the model works. Our partners can do fantastic custom implementations and extend the CMS according to a client’s need - because the code is there to look at and to be worked with. Closed Source code is written such that it works for a specific functional requirement (especially if you outsource your development!). In the long term, your software will suffocate on its own gluttony (one example of hundreds: Vignette).

Open Source delivers on the promise

Sales of proprietary software over-promise, and the product under-delivers. Always. Never in my 30+ years in business have I seen it the other way round. Why? Because sales gets paid for selling, so they sell anything the customer wants. Then the primary goal becomes to simply hack the stuff to fulfill the sales promise and there it is - another feature in a bloated mess. As long as a feature runs, it is good enough for sales to sell it. But ultimately, it is another nail in the coffin of your proprietary CMS.

With Open Source, you get the better product ...

So here is the way it works for us: our developers are proud of what they do. They share it with everybody who wants to see it. They have open discussions with those that care to engage (you know Joy’s law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”). This means they are happy and motivated to do the work they do. They build the foundation to help others implement anything they need. This is turn means the system is highly adaptable - the foundation for business agility.

A great product almost sells itself. Not as fast as your sales force can press a proprietary system into the market, but it will spread – by word of mouth. Combine this with a sustainable business model - ours is dual licensing subscription, a business model Magnolia pioneered for applications, which meanwhile is pretty common in the OS world. It allows us to keep costs low, double every two years in size and revenue and have a long term perspective on our business and product, which benefits the customers, the implementation partners and us (we actually sleep well at night).

... and Open Source vendors are the better companies.

Incidentally, most companies these days are externally funded (VC etc). Hard to see how the interest of the financiers aligns with those of the customers of a proprietary CMS. Magnolia never had external funding. We can follow our vision independently.

All these factors allow us to significantly invest in the future of our product, which will address the common concern (also voiced in Assad’s article) that CMSs are too difficult to use. For a glimpse into our biggest release yet (scheduled for June 20) look at And we are not talking Wordpress here, but a platform that powers some of the world's most demanding virtual presences. We are simply, slowly but strongly building the world's best CMS. Not saying we are there yet, but we'll get there. And it being Open Source is a big part of that journey.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CMS deconstructed: is user experience all that remains?

In the last couple of years, more and more functions that are typically part of a bigger product have been "extracted" from such products and released as service available on the web, often for free. Take for example video publishing. No longer is it strictly necessary to have your own infrastructure to publish videos on the web – services like YouTube or Vimeo can be utilized, often for free. The same is true for  much of  the functionality found for example in a content management system or web experience management suite:
  • Video publishing: Youtube, Vimeo…
  • Image editing & publishing: Flickr…
  • Task Manager: Remember the Milk
  • File Sharing: Dropbox
  • Document Management: Google Apps
  • Analytics: Google Analytics
  • Comments:  IntenseDebate
  • Project Management: Basecamp
  • Publishing: tons of hosting providers
  • … uncounted others for every aspect you can imagine
Photo ©Boris Kraft. All rights reserved.

So you could say there is a trend to deconstruct content management (there is also an opposite trend, building suites that try to do everything you ever need, but I'll discuss that in a future blog post).

One very recent example is the real time web. There actually are cloud services that do nothing more than allow your content to be refreshed on the client without the user reloading a page (remember the Push web?). Great for instance for live coverage of events. This functionality clearly should and will be delivered by any good ol' CMS worth its salt sooner or later. Still it apparently is an urgent enough business objective to have spawned companies that do nothing else (not a long term viable business proposition I'd assume, but I digress)

If you take that trend to the extreme, all functionalities that you find in a software like Magnolia could eventually become individual web services provided by a host of companies. Maybe we have a company that offers workflow on the web (been waiting for that for at least 10 years), companies offering JCR storage, services to write rich text snippets and others to publish them. You get the picture: theoretically we could move all the individual bits and pieces of a product into cloud services. 

For the sake of pleasing our imaginative minds, assume that a vendor like Magnolia follows suite and keeps reducing the functionality provided by the product, opting instead to integrate a web service. To some extent, that has already happened – for instance, Magnolia uses CampaignMonitor to run email campaigns, IntenseDebate for commenting (we additionally provide our own commenting module), and Google Analytics for analytics and A/B testing. 

Continue down this road and all that eventually remains is a shell for the various pluggable web services. And what is a shell but a user interface?

So, provided one day a CMS is only a UI on web services, wouldn't that mean that the user interface is the most important part of the product? If every CMS is using the same web services (or allows you to pick from the same such services), the only difference between them will be the user interface.

Not that I believe that will actually happen (otherwise we'd no be developing so much functionality for Magnolia Five), but either way our focus on providing the best looking and best working user interface in the industry certainly allows me to sleep well even if it would.