Headless CMS has exploded in popularity due to several factors. It is fast and lightweight, it grants your developers much coveted freedom, and it distributes your content to any required channel and device.

The digital experience industry is quite complicated, to put it carefully, and the headless sub sector is no exception. Here is our simplified overview of the types of products:

  • First-gen, lightweight, and “pure” headless CMS
  • Monolithic digital experience platforms with a headless extension
  • Next-gen, “hybrid”, and headless CMS

What is this hybrid, next generation headless CMS? How do you separate it from a DXP putting on the headless hat? Here are some fundamental features of any true headless CMS:

Omnichannel readiness

One of the major selling points of headless is the potential to distribute content to any channel—whether it is websites, mobile applications, or APIs for wearables, digital signage, IoT, AI and voice interfaces, podcast feeds, and so on ad infinitum.

A first generation headless solution is not optimal for complex websites, as it lacks features like visual page editing, tree structure, real-time previewing, and URL management. But omnichannel implies every channel, including websites. Thus, a next generation headless CMS comes to its right. Providing structured content, such a CMS allows editors to build complex websites, while developers can build solutions using their favorite front-end frameworks.

Low operating costs

Depending on your configuration, a lightweight headless CMS can prove more price-efficient than a monolithic CMS from the past. In many cases the price tag is based on multiple parameters, for instance API requests, and the number of requests can inadvertently be doubled by developers who simply choose to code differently. Also, a pure headless solution includes only a database and an API, while solutions to present your content, the front-end, must be hosted in another location—possibly increasing the price and security risk in the process.

A next-gen headless CMS includes an optional presentation framework for websites, eliminating this factor from the price calculation. Otherwise it features the same lightweight advantages of a first-gen headless CMS, but still with the same factors you have to consider.

Ease of use

In a world with an increasing number of distractions and clutter, what editors and content creators really need is to focus on editing and producing structured content in a focused environment. A first-gen headless CMS offers this, with far fewer options for the content creator than in a traditional CMS.

While a next-gen headless CMS can indeed offer the good, old plethora of choices in classic website management, it can also offer this in a headless mode where the emphasis is on content, and content only—if this fits your requirements.

Learn more: 5 reasons to go headless with Enonic »

Cloud scalability

Most pure headless vendors offer their solutions as a SaaS, meaning you log into a cloud service to edit content or write code. With this comes the advantages of cloud hosting, including blazing speeds and cloud scalability for traffic peaks.

However, next-gens offer a variety of hosting solutions. Some are SaaS, while others may be PaaS or even in your preferred cloud. The general trend is in any case that more and more vendors are moving to the cloud for increased user experience and speed.

API freedom

An API is a computing interface that lets different systems communicate with each other. Several pure headless vendors offer a solution with a database and a ready-made API, that consequently allows you to distribute your content to other channels.

However, in these cases the API is fixed and standardized by courtesy of the vendor. In a true next-gen headless CMS you are given the flexibility to tailor the vendor APIs according to your own requirements. You can for instance customize the API if the one provided is not suited for your requirements.

See also: 6 reasons to choose Enonic as your headless CMS »

Native apps

Headless has historically been  best suited for populating your apps with curated content. In app development the developers prefer their own frameworks and tools, and use APIs to present structured content in their apps.

As a next-gen headless CMS includes the same mindset of structured content and APIs, in addition to richer CMS functionality, it is safe to say that application development will be in just as good hands as with first-gen headless.

Richer web experience

First-gen headless play well with developer front-end frameworks, like Next, Nuxt, React, Angular, and Vue. Developers no longer want readily chewed HTML and markup, they want raw content to build upon. This is where headless enters the frame, with its offering of structured content served by flexible APIs.

In a next-gen headless CMS, you get the exact same option, to distribute content to a front-end built with whatever framework the developers prefer. In addition you get better handling of websites with tree structure, URL handling, and real-time preview.

System security

With most headless vendors being cloud native, this means increased security. The cloud professionals assume the responsibility of handling security issues (among others), while the headless architecture often provides a read-only API, as specified by Practical Ecommerce. In addition, the API can be stored behind one or more layers of code—for instance an application layer and a security layer—thus making it less vulnerable to attacks. Finally, the admin of a headless CMS is often on a different server and a different domain.

As always, a next-gen headless CMS is able to feature the same functionality as its first-gen brethren. It all boils down to what specific architecture you and your developers agree on beforehand. Being just as flexible as a “pure” headless CMS, it is always possible to change the model later without being bogged down in monolithic limitations.

Don’t miss: The biggest trends in content and tech: Interview with Enonic’s CTO »

The next-gen benefits

As we have seen, a next generation headless CMS is just as “pure” as a first generation headless CMS when it comes to structured content and developer freedom.

But here is what a next-gen can do in addition, which a first-gen headless CMS usually cannot:

  • Tree structure / inherent content organization
  • Visual Page builder / Composer
  • Server-side formatting and templating
  • Customizable back-end for building your own APIs and logic
  • Real-time preview based on editor’s context
  • URL handling (internally and externally)
  • Pluggable authentication
  • Custom error handling
  • Avoid “forced” updates from the cloud vendor (if PaaS)
  • Editors less dependent on developers to manage websites

The bottom line is that a next-generation or hybrid CMS, if you like, can fill the same requirements as a first generation headless CMS, with added (and fully optional!) benefits that shine when you are building more complex websites and want a higher degree of back-end flexibility.

Originally published 1 July 2020, updated 22 June 2022.

Checklist: How to choose the right headless CMS

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