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The history of CMS – what has happened?

An essential look on how content management systems came to be and how they have evolved.

If you are a web content editor, you work in a CMS every day. You publish pages and blog posts, embed images and videos, add categories and tags, connect profiles and services, array the site structure and URL hierarchy, and so on.

There can be no doubt that the content management system has made life easier for everyone frequenting the web: The developers build self-service systems, the editors create and publish content, and the visitors consume their chosen content regularly.

But how did it all start? When did the world wide web transition from manually updating and uploading HTML files to the complex editorial systems of today?

While you’re at it, find out what CMS fits your organisation:

Checklist: How to choose the right CMS

B.C. (Before CMS)

Yes, there was an era when there was no CMS. You can call it the stone age, but we prefer the more fitting term “dark ages”—also known as the early 1990s. In this period the first websites started to appear, in the form of handmade, static web pages built on simple and flat HTML text files—which in turn were copied to a directory under a running web server using an FTP program.

Technological innovations lead to an increasingly visual and function-rich web. In 1993 the web browser Mosaic started to support images and the introduction of Server Side Includes (SSI) let you separate portions of your site like header and footer from the main content. In 1996 the browser Internet Explorer became the first to support CSS.

The next step was therefore to build interactive websites by using a combination of static markup language and dynamic scripting with programming languages like Perl and Python.

Read more about the history of websites »

However—building, uploading, and maintaining entire websites with content in a still largely manual way was untenable in the long run. The time was therefore ripe for the emergence of a system for automating and streamlining the process—it was time for a content management system.

CMS cometh

The first CMS-like technologies consisted of using server-side scripting to generate content sent from a server to the web browser. Familiar web development programming languages like Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) and Active Server Pages (ASP) came into play in 1995–1997, with the addition of Java Server Pages (JSP) in 1999. These server-side script engines made it easier to build dynamically generated web pages, and from here on out the scene was set for the advent of the nascent CMS.

A dynamic revolution occurred in 1997 with the introduction of the Document Object Model (DOM), an API for HTML and XML documents letting you identify and control parts of a document. The DOM let users access and manipulate the styles of HTML elements like the body or a division of a page. A few years later the introduction of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax) added to the dynamic revolution where developers could request and receive data to update a web page—without reloading the page.

Be smart, save time: 12 ways Enonic can help you save time on daily tasks »

Between 1997 and 2002 many organisations and companies made their own custom, homebrew CMS with the existing technologies. Whether they were manufacturers, agencies, or editorials did not matter, the world wide web existed and they had to put content out there. The CMSs of the era was characteristically often adapted to the specific needs of the organisation behind it.

However, several enterprise CMSs began to appear in the middle to late 1990s as well, foreseeing the market for uniform and professionally developed content management systems. Examples of enterprise CMSs from the period include FileNet, StoryBuilder, Interwoven, Documentum, FatWire, FutureTense, and Inso.

In the same period the web hosting service GeoCities grew to its zenith, becoming the third most visited site on the web. Acquired by Yahoo! in 1999, GeoCities was one of the first web-based CMSs allowing users to manage their websites. The resulting plethora of personal, hobby based, and other kinds of colourful GeoCities websites is a staple of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

World of WCM

The early to mid 2000s witnessed the increasingly professionalisation and specialisation of content management systems. During this period the moniker “WCM” started to show up,  standing for “web content management.” Whereas CMS is the broadest term, designating content management for intranets, archives, and business operations as well—the web content management system is solely directed toward the web.

No matter what you decide to call it, the WCM/CMS of the early to mid 2000s started to cater to enterprise and business needs in an increasingly larger and more professional manner. Simultaneously, the period saw the advent of open source CMSs, like Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla. Most of the WCMs contained both the back-end and front-end technology of a website, and could handle texts, images, and other files to store, display, and download.

Be smart: 6 ways Enonic XP can help your company generate revenue »

With technologies allowing for dynamic content delivery the world witnessed the advent of the so-called “web 2.0”—a more participatory, user-generated, and social web. As websites moved from static brochure to more interactive experiences, the need for more frequent content updating and management arose. By this token, one of the central roles of the CMS became to provide the capability for different user roles and permissions in delivering content.

Also, technological innovation led to a steady increase in other CMS features, including previewing, URL handling, RSS feeds, responsive designs, visitor comments, tracking systems, permission systems, drag and drop, visual editors, templating, integrations with e-commerce, analytics, CRM, and ERP, and so on.

Top features in CMSs by year (courtesy of Dries Buytaert, founder of Drupal):





Static content

WYSIWYG authoring

Social media integration

Customer intelligence

Separate content from design

Dynamic content

WYSIWYG page design


Animated GIFs

Publishing workflows

Collaboration tools



User generated content

Rich media integration

Service-enabled / APIs


Modular architecture

Lead generation tools

Multi-site platform governance








Donning the DXP

DXP stands for “digital experience platform” and represents the evolution of content management systems into complete marketing suites from the late 2000s and well into the 2010s. In a world of digital transformation, a DXP aims to deliver a coherent experience for brands across different digital touchpoints.

A DXP is primarily directed toward enterprises, and may include a classical CMS together with analytics, e-commerce, machine learning, tools for personalisation, A/B testing, SEO, and—maybe most importantly in the context of today’s omnichannel world—APIs for content delivery to different channels.

Headless history

Amidst the evolution of the CMS we have seen the rise of the headless CMS. A headless CMS severs the tight coupling between the content and the presentation we have seen in traditional CMSs, thus allowing the content to be delivered to several channels—whether it is the classical desktop, a mobile app, an IoT device, or something else entirely.

Even though headless CMS has become popular in the past few years, the concept isn’t new. Separating data and presentation has been developer best practice ever since the introduction of the model–view–controller in the 1970s. Many of the early publishing systems, including the first CMSs, were “headless” in a way. In these systems editors could manage form based content, while the presentation was handled in a client—presumably the web browser.

Learn more: 5 reasons to go headless with Enonic »

The differences between headless of yore and today are plentiful, of course. The client back then was most commonly a website, whereas now the point is to deliver content to wildly different channels and devices.

Approaching the 2000s, the coupling between the delivery layer and the CMS became tighter. This was convenient for both editors and developers: the former could use all the rich features now associated with CMSs, while the latter could code, test, and deploy both editorial and end-user functionality bundled.

This was all well and good, but with the introduction of new channels in the form of mobiles, IoT, wearables, and others, CMS vendors saw the need of a headless approach. As a result, WCM/DXP vendors added web based content APIs to meet the competition from pure headless vendors. This, in turn, saw the influx of the hybrid CMS—where you can keep on running digital experiences on partly traditional and partly headless CMS.

Fragmented future

This is the point in the evolution where we are today. We now have a broad range of CMS vendors: pure headless CMS, hybrid CMS, site builders like Wix, and other varieties. We face a fragmented future in terms of channels and devices. To prepare for this omnichannel reality, as well as digital transformation, your organisation should choose CMS carefully.

In this context, it is useful to know about the different types of CMSs:

CMS type


Static website builders

Generating files. Few changes, limited resources in terms of server capacity, fast to serve files.


For organisations looking for a suite. One package where every service is bundled, with little need to customise solutions.


Point solution, app, service needing content.


Complex solution, building customer journeys, websites, and services. Delivering content to services with headless.

This simplified chart may also help:


Checklist: How to choose the right CMS

headless cms
hybrid cms