The term alliance receives a fair amount of love in technology circles. It makes perfect sense: software companies and organizations have long relied on partnerships to build awareness and grow channel relationships, and having friends can make it easier to scale.
One might call such agreements “pacts” or “treaties,” especially if the partnership is between two competitors – or my favorite permutation, cuspetitors.
But alliance evokes something distinctly positive. A spirit of assembling strengths, building consensus, elevating numbers, and rallying around a common vision or goal.
Of course, as a well-documented Star Wars fan (read any of my previous pieces, I guarantee there's a nod in most), I can’t help but associate alliance with the idea of rebelling against something, of bringing unlikely bedfellows together to stand against an existential threat… like an Empire. Sometimes, it's a bit of David versus Goliath – Luke versus Vader – and there’s an implied scrappiness to that. One that’s indelible to the ethos of the cause.
In the case of the new Open Website Alliance, an interesting confluence of ideologies is at play. The newly formed cabal betwixt the world’s leading open source CMSs – Drupal, Joomla, TYPO3, and WordPress – is very clear in its charter to advance open source interests. But there’s more, and it has to do with the very real challenges that exist for these platforms in an uncertain future of regulatory governance.
To get an inside view of the freshly-minted alliance, I spoke to Mathias Bolt Lesniak – an open source evangelist at toujou, a SaaS website building platform with TYPO3 services based in Norway. Mathias also has TYPO3 in his DNA; he is a previous consultant for the organization, a key part of the TYPO3 association, and a leading voice for the Open Website Alliance.
I’d say a trusty blaster is good in any fight. But Star Wars references aside, an alliance is a solid place to start when building a movement. And if any part of the CMS market is focused on “freeing the system,” it’s the open source community.
Perhaps it’s apropos that TYPO3’s press release announcing the Open Website Alliance was issued from Switzerland. The idea of “neutral ground” further reinforces the compact that connects these otherwise competitive CMSs – which collectively power 50% of all online websites today.
As the press release points out, the Open Website Alliance was founded to promote choice across the open source software marketplace and facilitate collaboration between free and open source (FOSS) web content management projects – thus furthering the core values of openness, trust, and quality.
But where did this air of collaboration begin?
As Mathias pointed out, the Alliance owes its genesis to a coordinated response from the Drupal Association, Open Source Matters (Joomla), the TYPO3 Association, and the WordPress Project. The organizations pooled their collective resources to pen an open letter to the European Union regarding its concerns about the EU’s proposed Cyber Resilience Act.
“The Open Website Alliance started out with this letter to the EU,” Mathias said. “We weren't an alliance six months ago, but that was really when Drupal, Joomla, TYPO3, and WordPress got together at a leadership level to do something together. Because we shared a concern – and we had shared values. Of course, there's been collaborations between our communities previously, but this was really the first time that we met on a leadership level – board members and executives, meeting together on one call.
At question was the Act’s ban on what it classified as ”unfinished software” and a bevy of muddled definitions surrounding “commercial activity.” In the original text, there's an implicit obligation for software to address all known exploitable vulnerabilities, and maintain a secure default configuration. The latter is particularly problematic, as there’s no way of knowing where and how open source software will be used in projects.
With FOSS products unaccounted for in the original language, open source systems could be liable for safety and security in an untenable manner. These regulations – while viewed as important for maintaining security standards – could potentially hamper European innovation and, as TYPO3 pointed out, drive activity toward U.S. tech giants.
“With the Cyber Resilience Act, we discovered there was a real danger for operating as a nonprofit, free and open source content management system – and within the EU, that might actually become very, very hard,” Mathias reflected. “And what hadn't been mentioned yet were two things: first, content management systems within the EU actually represent a little more than half of all websites. Many small to medium-sized businesses use our systems – also larger ones – but that means it would have a great financial impact. The other thing that we saw was that being free and open source means we have certain values, things that we believe in, like openness and free speech. These values very much aligned with the core values of the European Union, so we thought it was an important message to give. It isn't just about business, it's also about the values behind what we do.”
The open letter to the EU was issued in July of 2023. In early December, the language of the Cyber Resilience Act was agreed upon, paving the way for its adoption this year – and obligations being phased in through late 2025 and into 2027. As the Act continues to unfold, the Open Website Alliance aims to stand in solidarity against any measures that might impact their collective viability – and together, help shape solutions for all open source communities.
In addition to the general community participation, the Alliance is guiding its breadth of members on a leadership level. This means the respective organizations can more easily coordinate on strategy and actions, creating a unified platform that powers new and existing cross-community collaboration projects.
Leadership of the organization is also based on collaboration. While by-laws and other institutional practices have not yet fully gestated, the presidency will rotate among the members, and all decisions will be consensus-based. That said, it is by no means an established authority with centralized control or governance. Given that, I asked Mathias how he might describe its makeup and structure.
“The Open Website Alliance is a very simple construction,” he relayed. “It doesn't have a formal legal body, so it’s more of a collaboration space – a community of communities, as we say. So it’s up to each member to do what the Alliance encourages.”
While still nascent, Mathias did share that some of the operational components of the Alliance are already taking form. As someone who has been involved with numerous associations like this – including the well-established MACH Alliance, which shares common traits with this new organization – I’ve seen how the right operational bedrock is key to building success.
I asked Mathias about the roadmap beyond the quintet of founders. While the four open source software communities represent a significant part of the market, many other technologies have embraced FOSS. As part of its charter, he said that the Open Website Alliance is also encouraging other FOSS CMS platforms to apply for membership.
“We have seen interest from other free and open source projects or content management systems that would like to join the Alliance,” Mathias reported. “So it's open for anyone who has an OSI (Open Source Initiative) and a verifiable free and open source license. But in addition to that, the charter also specifies that members have to agree to the Open Web Manifesto, which I know that Drupal and Dries Buytaert (CTO and founder of Drupal and Acquia) have been promoting previously.”
It's true: the vision of a free and modular web has long been part of the open source zeitgeist, due in no small part to the contributions of Dries Buytaert and the Drupal community. As Mathias said, the Alliance has taken the core Drupal manifesto and generalized it – a bit – to render it less specific to a single platform, and more reflective of the Alliance makeup.
“I think if you want an open web, you also want to work differently with your partners or friends in the open source.”
The purpose statement the Alliance has developed provides the most basic tenets of its goals. It states, “members commit to jointly encourage prospective website owners and developers to always choose open source software over proprietary systems, and to educate why this decision is the first and most important one in a website project. Through this advocacy, we are expanding opportunities for all open source CMS projects.”
As previously noted, the collaboration also seeks to benefit the public perception of open source projects – that they lean on the reliability of open source software, and are supported by the “quality and safety of open source communities.” This community aspect is key, as it speaks to the potential for members to share and discuss best practices in an open source vein.
But there’s more. Accounting for the distributed and collaborative nature of open-source software – even beyond content management – the Alliance strives to support the growing reality of upstream dependencies. I asked Mathias to elaborate on this, and he focused on the evolving need for standards.
“We see upstream dependencies that are increasingly dependent on much of the same technology, but in different ways,” he said. “That will be interesting as soon as we get in Alliance members that don't use PHP, but I think it's also at an idea level. If you look at what the European Union is doing today, they are putting requirements on people who work with open source, just as they do with closed source – and that means we have to develop standards. We have to develop common ways so that we're not all standing by ourselves when there's suddenly a [new] requirement for data interchange, which is a part of the new data regulation."
By being proactive, Mathias believes the open source communities of interest can now plan more effectively and coordinate how they work. Through consensus, they can agree on suitable standards to help govern things like security and maintenance, which involve increasingly more upstream dependencies.
“It means that we have to care just as much about each other as we care about the systems that we use.”
As someone who has built and managed projects in both Drupal and WordPress, I’m deeply familiar with the advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of their inherent differences – or how proprietary systems might challenge them – I’ve always viewed their “open sourceness” as an innate strength. Perhaps the most valuable asset for each is its fiercely loyal community, which represents the real power and potential for the Open Source Alliance to realize change at an industry and regulatory level.
When I make the obvious comparison to other industry alliances, I can’t help but think of lofty goals woven around voluminous mission statements. But open source is a different beast, beating its own drum and operating at times like a distributed hive mind. The users and contributors are vast and diverse, and the wheels of change often grind more slowly in these corners. At the same time, they're also tacitly independent – part of its democratic appeal, in truth – and that could stymie the adoption of rules and practices.
I asked Mathias a logical question: what’s ahead? What do the next 12 months look like? His answer was refreshing – because it was simple and honest:
“We don't have that written down,” he said, “but there are things we are talking about at a leadership level. Having an Alliance means that it's much easier for us to say, well, we want to do something together to improve how we standardize security, and then that can be disseminated from a leadership level down into the community. Another is a very simple thing, and that is attending each other's conferences. I've been attending a few other CMS conferences, and there is so much we can learn just from how our communities are organized. So community best practices are a very important thing to improve quality. We have good quality, but we can always improve on that.”
For Mathias, education is also a big part of the equation. From his perspective, shifting the narrative is paramount, and leading with an “open source first” mentality is key to helping businesses, agencies, and users make better decisions.
“I had the idea that what we need to do is educate the bits,” he said. “Tell people first what open source is instead of haggling about which system is best versus proprietary. So we agreed to collaborate on promoting open source as sort of a ‘white label’ thing that incorporates a lot of benefits that are common [to] all our systems, and that's where choosing open source first came in. We encourage decision-makers who are looking for content management systems to make that choice first. And once they're there, they have a lot more choice.”
Mathias reinforced that collaboration underscores everything, and how the founding systems and communities are going beyond sharing best practices and working to understand each other better. “We think it's a benefit for all open source that we know each other, and that we can help every client choose the best open source CMS or find the best agency that has the experience that they need.”
Alliances often present themselves as business opportunities. But sometimes, they emerge at a moment of great change or crisis, when hope is running low and great threats stand in the way of progress. When considering the more altruistic motives of open source – of the free and open web – it’s clear that this new alliance is focused on more than just the financial implications of impending regulation.
In this case, open source is more like an open force for good – and one to be reckoned with.
August 6-7, 2024 – Montreal, Canada
We are delighted to present our first annual summer edition of our prestigious international conference dedicated to the global content management community. Join us this August in Montreal, Canada, for a vendor-neutral conference focused on CMS. Tired of impersonal and overwhelming gatherings? Picture this event as a unique blend of masterclasses, insightful talks, interactive discussions, impactful learning sessions, and authentic networking opportunities.
January 14-15, 2025 – Tampa Bay Area, Florida
Join us next January in the Tampa Bay area of Florida for the third annual CMS Kickoff – the industry's premier global event. Similar to a traditional kickoff, we reflect on recent trends and share stories from the frontlines. Additionally, we will delve into the current happenings and shed light on the future. Prepare for an unparalleled in-person CMS conference experience that will equip you to move things forward. This is an exclusive event – space is limited, so secure your tickets today.