Umbraco, which powers our EtchCMS platform, can be a bit like a shape-shifting alien at times - you look away for just a little too long, and when you return you’re sure it’s the same thing but something has changed.
Fortunately though, in Umbraco’s case, that’s always for the better - one of the benefits of an open-source product is that the pace of improvement and innovation blows traditional lethargic enterprise vendors away. An active community of Umbraco users and developers are never short of ideas and energy to drive the platform forward, with the ‘sensible head’ of the full-time HQ team always around to maintain direction and quality.
Unless your website is pretty recent, chances are you’re already aware that Umbraco 10 was built on a huge change to the underlying Microsoft.NET framework upon which it runs. Fortunately, whilst for developers this presented a big shift in technology and potentially quite a lot of effort to migrate older sites, it bought great positives - a much leaner, faster and more stable platform, capable of delivering content to customers better than ever before. This was on top of other improvements made in preceding versions to provide a much cleaner and easier-to-use back office, allowing your content editors to get their job done far easier and faster.
Since Umbraco 10’s release in June 2022, we’ve had the stability and certainty of knowing that there’ll be a major new release every six months, but also the safety of a ‘long-term support’ version released every two years (with three year’s of guaranteed updates for critical issues). That gives us certainty and reassurance and allows us to plan ahead knowing that Umbraco will remain a solid platform for us in the future.
So, what shape-shifting can we expect Umbraco to be making in future, especially those features that’ll support an ever-more-important positive customer experience?
Much of the buzz around Umbraco’s current proposition is centred around its “composable DXP” approach. If you’re not familiar with that term, let’s break it down…
First up, a DXP or ‘digital experience platform’ encompasses content management provided by a CMS alongside everything else needed to deliver connected customer experiences throughout an entire digital lifecycle - from prospect to customer and beyond, across the varied channels they may use (web, mobile and more).
That typically means a DXP includes e-commerce features, AI-driven personalisation technology (to deliver the right content, to the right person, at the right time), digital asset management (for maintaining, storing and serving image/video media, datasheets or white papers), and integrations with other enterprise systems, e.g. to enable self-service access to internal systems (to open and interact with contact centre cases for example).
Traditional enterprise vendors have offered DXPs for some time, but resistance to high costs - especially for components that you’re not using - and all-too-often poor implementations compared to standalone best-of-breed products, has led to growing interest in a ‘composable’ approach. In a composable solution, we’re free to select those best-of-breed products, picking the ones that we need (and leave out what we don’t), and integrate them together easily and seamlessly, preferably with pre-built “plug-and-play” integrations.
Whilst that all sounds like a technical benefit (and it is), customers enjoy the difference too - the benefits to them of a DXP-driven experience should be clear, but by adopting a composable approach, you’re doing that whilst not forcing a compromise upon them. We’ve all used systems where you get ‘handed-off’ to something that clearly feels and works differently, even if it was sold to the organisation as a single integrated solution - often the result of acquired products, poorly integrated just to ‘fatten up’ an existing platform. As customers, we’re the ones who suffer, with inconsistent user interfaces and gaps in functionality (despite claims to the contrary).
Composable DXP is a clear part of Umbraco’s approach already - its open architecture allows developers to tesselate almost anything together, and there are pre-built integrations for Hubspot CRM, several personalisation and recommendation engines, multiple e-commerce platforms, marketing automation and loyalty platforms, Zapier (opening up a whole world of further tools) and more - with even more coming in the roadmap including Trustpilot and further digital asset management platforms.
Like Umbraco, sometimes that shape-shifting alien we referred to changes a lot… and like something out of Doctor Who, we end up with a CMS, but not as we know it.
Headless is exactly that - a CMS back office but decoupled from the traditional front-end website (in fact, typically not even having one). Much like a composable DXP, this allows us to select technologies for any given problem in order to deliver the best customer experience; if for example, you need to manage content for use in a mobile application, why not use Umbraco to do that, leveraging what you already have and know?
Currently, Umbraco’s headless offering (named Heartcore) is a standalone product - based on the familiar CMS, but delivered using a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model by Umbraco and hence carries a number of significant constraints that mean it’s not a fit for everyone.
The Umbraco roadmap shows that we can soon expect the core Umbraco CMS product to have a headless API available. This opens up delivering your website and managing content for other destinations through one platform - thus ensuring timely, consistent messaging and content across all your channels, presenting a consistent and channel-agnostic experience to your customers.
Editor back office
There’s no denying that our favourite shape-shifting alien has gotten a lot more attractive in recent years - she’s never been ugly (compared to some), but features for your content editors, with innovations such as infinite editing and language variants, have enabled them to do more, more simply, than ever.
But as the Umbraco product evolves, it becomes more complex to maintain, and enabling features such as composable DXP integrations to work as seamlessly in the back office as in the front end of a site, becomes ever more challenging. This can lead to inconsistencies for your editors, increasing onboarding efforts and slowing them down.
A significant amount of effort is currently being spent on modernising the editor back office. Whilst the intention is not to make significant changes to the visual aspects of Umbraco’s user interface (which would be counter-productive), moving to the new “Web Components” based technology provides a unified set of building blocks to future-proof the Umbraco back office.
The benefits of this should mean that third-party components and integrations can make use of the Umbraco user interface, as though they were a core feature all along; to content editors, there’d be no visual or interaction differences whatsoever, mirroring the seamless experience on the front-end of the site to your customers.
“To infinity and beyond…”
Buzz may not be our shape-shifting alien (although he sure knows how to defeat one), but one thing we do know is that Umbraco’s roadmap is an exciting one. It was never dull, already being a strong platform, but with the few major initiatives now already underway or expected soon (not to mention regular fortnightly maintenance releases), we’ve got a strong indication that Umbraco is playing hard to win and expand their fit and market-share.
We expect to hear much more, on these and the next major roadmap items, at the annual Codegarden Conference in June - the programme is packed with sessions on composable DXP, headless, the Umbraco UI project and of course much more.