My theory is this: the popularity of a piece of online software is really important. Watching software trends is like watching the stocks to see if a company is growing or faltering. It’s like watching a heart monitor to see if a patient is still alive.
If you were socially savvy in the days before Facebook, you probably remember MySpace. It was strong in 2005 and for the next couple years it grew and grew. Facebook was but a twinkle in Mark Zukerberg’s eye.
Then in late 2007, Facebook mirrored the same dramatic growth. MySpace didn’t suffer much in popularity. People were probably jumping between accounts. But like a ship in that eerie calm right before its stern rises from the water, MySpace was about to sink. Half way through 2008, Facebook’s growth exploded throughout the world while MySpace slipped into the deep.
Another great example of a social networking site that thrived and then dived is Friendster. This bit by the Onion shows what happens when software becomes unpopular:
This kind of thing happens all the time. Great ideas are borne, people jump on the idea and then some other company develops a more trendy version. That’s all fine and well when it comes to social platforms–it’s easy to jump ship–but what happens when your website is on the line?
Five years ago, only the cool kids were using what’s called a CMS or Content Management System. A CMS is a piece of software that allows web developers and regular folks to easily and quickly update content without the need to manually go into the code. Pretty much everyone who builds a new site does so using a CMS. I can’t think of anyone who builds static sites anymore.
Right now, there are tons of different CMSs available on the market. Many of them are free. For some, there’s a licensing fee. But just like the early days of social media, these companies are going to rise and fall.
Although people might argue with me on this one, I’m going to say there are three basic types of CMS. There’s an ultra-expensive licensed CMS which the bigger companies or government organizations use (unless the company is really big in which case it may just develop its own CMS!). There’s the ecommerce CMS which isn’t much of a CMS at all—it’s ecommerce software with a CMS plugged in. And then there’s the ‘open source’ CMS, in other words the free version for the rest of us.
Because most websites are going to be built using an open source CMS, this is where the really dramatic action is going to take place that’s relevant to most people.
At the time of writing, there are three big players: WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. When we watch the trends (starting in 2004), we see WordPress and Drupal battling it out. In truth, back at this time they were going for different markets. WordPress was just for bloggers (making it quite popular) and Drupal was in the professional business website camp.
In late 2005, Joomla appeared on the scene and rocketed to the top in popularity. It stayed at the top until the end of 2008 despite WordPress’ steady and dramatic rise. Drupal was also rising, mostly thanks to people switching from static sites to CMSs. During those early years, there was plenty of pie to go around.
Then in 2009, first blood was spilled. WordPress and Joomla jostled viciously for popularity. Drupal plateaued. By 2010, the die was cast and WordPress was on the road to the massive lead it now enjoys.
What accounted for this?
Joomla and Drupal were designed to be powerful CMSs for business websites. But they were difficult to operate for both developers and for the people who updated them. WordPress was a blogging platform that was very popular with bloggers but not with business owners. When WordPress started offering business solutions, its simpler dashboard instantly made it a hit and Joomla and Drupal suffered.
The growth of WordPress (and the decline of Joomla and Drupal) was compounded by the massive community of developers that emerged to support WordPress. They made products and sold them (or gave them away for free) like they were in a massive Medieval market. Many Joomla and Drupal developers could see which way the wind was blowing and jumped over to WordPress.
So began a spiraling upwards of WordPress and an equally dramatic spiraling downwards for Joomla (Drupal has trudged on with an unspectacular but stable market share).
What does this mean for the future? There are still plenty of websites out there that haven’t converted to a CMS. Many of these will fizzle out, and the rest will redesign with a CMS. Of course there will always be new business start-ups and websites to go along with them. That means CMS growth will never plateau. It will continue to rise. And as it rises, there will be more products developed making the Medieval marketplace lively indeed.
Is WordPress set to become the Facebook of the CMS world?
I would hazard to guess no. WordPress has dominated the market for small and medium sized businesses which don’t need highly specialized functionality. It has certainly dominated for hobby websites. But it isn’t robust enough to break into Drupal’s market, for instance. And in the forseable future it certainly won’t touch the hard core licensed CMS solutions used by government or larger corporations.
Will it become robust enough to tap those markets in the decades to come? Mabye. That depends on the decisions made by the people at the top. Is that what they want? I don’t know. Right now, I don’t think that’s what they want.
Will Google try to buy WordPress? That would be interesting. It could happen if (in one distant year) the ‘open source’ part of the company went public. After all, Google bought YouTube. But Google also bought its own website platform, Blogger. I’d imagine they’d want to see if they can grow that first. If they did somehow purchase WordPress down the road, they’d probably find a way to make it even cooler.
Will another CMS rise to compete with WordPress and maybe steal the throne? I doubt that. At this point, the lead in popularity is just too great. There are tons of other CMSs out there that have tried to get a toe hold and they simply can’t. Have you heard of MODx? Or SilverStripe? If anything, you’ve probably heard of DNN, Microsoft’s attempt at gaining a market share in the CMS world. Their popularity is sinking like lead.
If I were to make a prediction that was boring and unimaginative, I would suggest that WordPress is going to continue its amazing rise, Joomla is going to continue plummeting and Drupal is going to trickle away its clients over many years, holding on to its core.
If you’re thinking of getting a new website or redesigning your old one, the safe boring route is probably to go for either WordPress or Drupal–WordPress if you have a relatively simple site and Drupal if you require a bit more heavy lifting. If you’re currently running off another platform such as DNN or Joomla, I wouldn’t cry ‘Hail Marry’ just yet. You’re site will likely be fine for years. Even if those platforms leak to a trickle, they’ll still trudge on. When it’s time to update, you may want to consider updating to WordPress or Drupal to take advantage of all the products and services which are likely to improve with time.