A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about why static site generators aren’t the next big thing. One of my reasons for thinking so is that the majority of web publishers want an integrated content management and publishing system, which is exactly what a CMS like WordPress or Joomla! provides. But I also mentioned that some publishers see the virtue in completely separating the content management system from the front-end.
Publishing systems that focus exclusively on managing content rather than its presentation are called headless content management systems. You can think of a headless CMS as WordPress with just the admin interface — no front-end, no themes, and no page generation. That might seem like a step backwards, but in fact, headless content management systems have some distinct advantages.
Consider the case of a large publisher, an organization that employs dozens of writers and publishes hundreds of pieces of content every month. They need a content management system so that they can shepherd content from the idea stage through editing and proofreading to final publication. Managing publishing workflows of this complexity and scope is next to impossible without a powerful organizational and collaborative framework, and that’s what the best content management systems provide.
Now think about the many ways in which that publisher will need to make content available to its readers: perhaps they have several websites tailored to different niches on which some portion of the company’s content is displayed, and then there’s the iOS app, the Android app, the Windows Phone App, various publishing partners who syndicate content, and so on. For an organization like this, having the front-end tightly coupled to the back-end is more of a hindrance than a help.
Much of the excitement around the recent release of the WordPress REST API is that it allows WordPress to be used in exactly the way we’ve been describing. It’s entirely possible to use WordPress as a headless content management system that provides content to an array of front-ends. Some publishers already do — such as Quartz — but until the release of the API, it was a complex process. Now any competent developer can build a bespoke front-end to WordPress.
Headless content management systems are relatively rare at the moment, but I expect to see them becoming more popular over the next few years as publishers realize the benefits of having content management separated from front-end presentation.