Early this past May, co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert of Acquia, a provider of commercial open source, social publishing solutions for Drupal, shared his insights for web-based business owners, developers and marketers on Drupal in the Enterprise at the 2011 CMS Expo Learning and Business Conference.

CMS stands for content management systems, which are platforms that we use everyday, either built in-house to manage company workflow or well-known platforms like WordPress, which are used by most online publishing sites (like this one). Intrigued by Buytaert’s thoughts on open source’s potential for disruption, I reached out for an interview to discuss 5 reasons why open source will shake the CMS establishment industry.

CBM: Tell me a little about your company, what is Acquia?

acquia 5 Reasons why open source will shake the CMS establishmentDries Buytaert: Acquia is the company I co-founded in 2007 to provide support and services for Drupal, the open-source content-management system I created ten years ago. Drupal’s growth has amazed everybody, including me: what started as a dorm-room project now runs hundreds of thousands of web sites, including some of the world’s biggest. Enterprise clients increasingly turn to Drupal — but they demand enterprise-level support, hosting, training, and other services. That’s where Acquia comes in.

CBM: What are five reasons why open source will shake the CMS establishment?

DB: Some of the reasons Drupal wins CMS battles are shared by other open-source projects: it’s free, you can adapt it for your needs, and so forth. But the content-management field is one where proprietary systems are on especially shaky ground, for five reasons:

  1. Open-source CMSes are more flexible. Open source’s flexibility is especially important in content management because every website is unique. Even two magazines from the same publisher are likely to require different article formats, access permissions, integration with outside systems, and so forth. With proprietary CMSes, you’re always forced to figure out your own solutions, hope that the vendor implements your feature requests, or just change your plans. But open-source CMSes allow you to extend or change your site in any way you want; there are no limitations to what you can do.
  2. Open-source CMSes encourage innovation. Software developer and author Eric S. Raymond famously touted the open-source model by saying, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. But the breadth of open-source community goes beyond fixing bugs. Nearly a thousand people contributed code to Drupal 7 — a number that dwarfs the development team of any proprietary CMS’ development team. But that thousand is just the tip of the iceberg: Many thousands more file issues, write comments, and devise ideas on how to make the software work better. From this grandly fertile ground grow flowers of unexpected strength and variety.
  3. Open-source CMS ecosystems are growing. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop described the battle of portable devices as a “war of ecosystems”. That is, it’s not the phone that wins the market, but the phone plus its marketing, developers, apps, and so forth. The same is true of CMSes, and open-source projects are winning. Consider: indeed.com currently lists over 3,000 Drupal jobs vs. 800 for Vignette, under 300 for Jive, and barely 200 for FatWire. Drupal.org lists dozens of Drupal-focused consultancies, training companies, and hosts; over 1,600 apps (“modules”) are already available for Drupal 7, which was just released in January. Proprietary CMSes simply don’t have the resources to keep up.
  4. Open-source CMSes are evolving into utilities. Few proprietary solutions go on to become utilities — that is, commonplace and necessary. Drupal and other open-source CMSes have an advantage in this area because the leap from “product” to “commodity” requires a lot of momentum (which proprietary vendors can’t muster) and lowers profit margins (which proprietary vendors don’t want).
  5. Open-source CMSes are multi-use platforms. Proprietary CMSes make money by specializing in a narrowly defined market segment (such as social networking or the publishing vertical) and charging fees on a per-site or per-server basis. But developers of open-source CMSes seek broad adoption, not individual contracts. As a result, they tend to be able to run a wider variety of sites, and more of them. That’s why Drupal is often the choice for organizations — such as Turner Broadcasting and the U.S. House of Representatives — that want to standardize on one CMS, and run many sites off of it.

CBM: How will this affect web-based business owners? developers? marketers? content creators?

DB: First off, let’s dispense with the obvious: Free software lowers costs, period. That alone means that members of these groups can try out more ideas and roll out more sites without budget fears.

But let’s look beyond cost. As you know, the “network effect” is huge in software development: If you use a platform that’s well-supported, you have a greater selection of consultants, service providers, and supporting software. Proprietary CMSes have had an edge in the past because they had a head start, and they had better marketing. Advantages from that head start have evaporated: They simply have no technical advantage anymore. And with the growth of open-source ecosystems, their marketing advantage is disappearing as well.

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What say you to the future of CMS? Are Open Source platforms the future? I believe so.