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Is a WCM game-changer brewing In Basel? (On the appification of applications)

471px-The_Brewer_designed_and_engraved_in_the_Sixteenth 2Basel-based Magnolia CMS has many of the trappings of the typical small software vendor. Foosball table? Check. Team dinners at a long communal table? Check. Smart, hard-working co-founders who complete each other’s sentences and still radiate enthusiasm over a decade after the company’s launch? Jawohl!

Design magazines in the WC

But then, the Foosball table is standing not under acoustic tiles and flickering fluorescent lights, but on a large terrace overlooking the Rhine river. The headquarters is located not in a suburban office park, but near Basel’s historical center, surrounded by art galleries. And the most prominent reading material on the bookshelf[!] in the water closet is the design magazine Metropolis.

Design figures significantly in all things Magnolia. When friends asked founders Pascal Mangold and Boris Kraft why they would want to create a new WCM in 2003 (aka, “Aren’t 1500 existing content management solutions a sufficient curse on mankind?”), Mangold and Kraft justified it in the name of improved usability and user experience (UX).

Nine years later, Magnolia has established itself as an attractive Java-based, open source CMS. Revenues are growing nicely, enterprise-level projects are on the rise, and the entry into the North American market is paying off.

The appification of enterprise applications

But what keeps Mangold and Kraft up at night (and coming to work in the morning) is UX. When they began preparations for version 5 a couple of years ago, here’s what they added to the pot:

  • The dramatic expansion of smart phones and tablets.
  • The rise of the on-the-go mobile professional.
  • Gartner’s claim that “Users are looking to use tablets . . . for content creation as well as for participation in content review and approval processes.”
  • The introduction of iOS interaction patterns and gestures to the PC with Apple’s OSX Lion.

You can stir all of this over the considerable heat generated by the relentless user demand for the “appification of applications” (my term, don’t blame Magnolia) — that is, the expectation that enterprise apps should be as easy — indeed, as pleasurable — to use as “App Store apps.”

WCM? There’s an app for that.

The result, for Magnolia, is an entirely new user interface. In the development version demonstrated at their user conference in September 2012, this UI:

  • Looks like an app, and quacks like an app. Top level navigation consists of (just) three icons, representing the app library (see screen shot below), the “Pulse” (activity stream and versioning), and favorites.
  • Adopts iOS interaction paradigms for both the iPad and the Apple PC — e.g., pinching, swipes, scrolling.
  • Allows extensions and enhancements through the installation of app modules (company or community created) that will be available in an app marketplace.
  • Is, according to Mangold, so easy to understand that both new and existing users can begin working almost immediately. (Important, because the new UI makes no concessions to existing users familiar with version 4.5 or earlier.)
  • Is, literally, WYSIWYG. WCM vendors have announced plenty of “all new” UIs in recent years, but often they amounted to a slick but shallow set of tools for “casual” users. All of the heavy lifting was still done in the creaky old UI. Mangold and Kraft assert that this one is all new, all the way down. There is no other there there.


Now, who wants to taste it?

The question is whether Magnolia can match President Obama, and create a home brew that people actually enjoying drinking. Can the iOS-ified interface really support all of the hard (and getting ever harder) work of creating, maintaining, and optimizing rich experiences for consumers and employees? (To be fair, Magnolia looks to other best-of-breed solutions to fill in the customer engagement ecosystem.)

Well, don’t get too thirsty yet. In another nod to the sanctity of user experience, Kraft says version 5 will be released when it’s ready to be released. Version 5 “Alpha 2” was made available in early February, and “Alpha 3” has been announced for March 6. In the meantime, you can get a little sip from the previews on their web site.

 Or is it all “Double, double toil and trouble”?

One could argue (and some competitors no doubt will) that Magnolia has been blinded by mobility moonshine. The practice of content management is certainly not going to be soon conducted entirely on tablets. (Not that I believe that’s what Gartner is claiming.) However, assuming the new UI proves itself in practice, I think Magnolia has hooked into three important trends:

  • Mobile work: The iPad will not be the locus of content management, but information workers increasingly want to (or have to) execute work tasks  where ever, and whenever. An effective tablet interface cuts the PC dependency for CM pros.
  • Appification: In my view, the most important effect of the app interface isn’t that you can now (occasionally) work on a tablet — it’s that doing content management on a PC or desktop is like working on a tablet.
  • Systems of engagement: In terms of Geoffrey Moore’s distinction between systems of record and systems of engagement, CMSs have long been, and still largely remain, the former. But the creation and nurturing of systems of engagement for consumers depend upon empowered and engaged employees. As my colleague Rober Rose noted in last week’s blog, most teams still haven’t mastered (or even completely understood) their WCM, let alone a broader CXM software ecosystem. An app interface doesn’t turn CMS into a system of engagement, but assuming that users find it easier, faster, nicer to use, it’s an important step.

Agree? Share your perspective and insights by commenting here, tweeting your thoughts (@just_clarity), or posting your views on the DCG Facebook page.


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