Content management, especially popularized as Web content management, is nearing its tenth anniversary. More and more CMS vendors are converging on a basic set of features that characterize a content management system. So I spoke to a number of vendors to see who claims priority for their original contributions to the basic toolset.

Who first separated presentation from content? Who introduced version control? How about the first WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get) especially delivered via a Web browser)? Where did workflow come from? Who invented check-in and check-out? And was the first content repository a file, a database, a relational database, or something else altogether?

How old are powerful concepts like reuse and single-source publishing, personalization and multi-channel delivery? Who first added metadata to content? And did they use it in their search engine, or use it to build a taxonomy for advanced navigation? Who introduced link management? To judge from the hype on some CMS Web sites, all these ideas sprang full-blown from the heads of their development teams in the last couple of years.

I searched Brewster Kahle’s incredible Wayback Machine and turned up a number of press releases, some by companies still famous after the dot-bomb years, and some about products that have been acquired over and over throughout the merger and acquisition wars.

Up front, let me say that I can’t claim to have all the evidence in hand and can’t cover all of what I do have in this introductory article. So I’ll look to reader feedback for a future piece that will place each core component on a timeline, perhaps on the tenth anniversary of WCM itself. At the moment, that would appear to be June 2005. I’ll tell you why.

Who Gets the Most Credit?
I’ve talked to CM industry analysts and also asked “Who Did What When?” on the CMS mailing lists. There was nearly universal agreement that kudos for Web content management belongs to Vignette. Most experts correctly dated the introduction of Vignette StoryServer and StoryBuilder as 1996.

According to Frank Gilbane of Bluebill Advisors and the Gilbane report, “there can be little doubt that it was Vignette who was most responsible for the term [content management] becoming widely associated with Web content management. This in spite of the fact that there were far more people ‘managing Web content’ using Microsoft and Lotus technology at a time when you could still count Vignette’s customers on one hand.”

Vignette’s press release on the subject is dated July 1996 and by the end of that year many more companies had jumped on the WCM bandwagon, some using Vignette’s description, some a bit more generic. That October, Documentum introduced “RightSite – Industrial Strength Web Content Management.” In November, FutureTense launched the “Texture Web Publishing System.” In December, Inso acquired “Dynabase–XML-based Web Content Management and Publishing.”

I was an editor at NewMedia Magazine when we awarded the (January) 1997 Hyper Award to Vignette as Internet Production Tool, so Vignette was most prominent at the time, but it turns out 1996 is not really the right year. The evidence lies in a careful reading of the July 1996 Vignette press release, and it tells us a lot about the origins of content management technology. Tools were often created by someone who critically needed them and just could not find them yet from a tools supplier.

Look Back at PRISM
The needy party was Web content publishing pioneer CNET. Founders Halsey Minor and Jonathan Rosenberg built their own Web content management system and it introduced a number of today’s core capabilities, like content reuse and personalization. They called it PRISM (Presentation of Realtime Interactive Service Material). Page templates assembled the content dynamically from a relational database. Rosenberg knew other companies would need these tools and that CNET’s ambitious business plan for content publishing should not include software development.

In the meantime, Ross Garber and Neil Webber had moved from New England to Austin, TX in the hopes of finding a supportive environment for their Web publishing technology startup called Vignette (they did a word search for anything containing “net”). One day they called CNET to learn how so much content was being produced dynamically, and discovered PRISM. Halsey Minor licensed the patented software to Vignette, invested $500,000, and took a seat on the board.

So I’ll tentatively date the origin of Web content management to early summer 1995 and expect to provide a fuller account when I get your letters correcting this story.