Introducing the manual for modular architecture

Modular Web
October 12, 2022


Editor's note: This post was originally published as the foreword to the recently released book, Modular: The Web's New Architecture (And How It's Changing Online Business) by Sam Bhagwat, Chief Strategy Officer, Gatsby.

A lot has changed in the past decade. Our expectations as consumers. How we work. The speed and adaptability that businesses need to be successful. Although many of these changes were already happening, the COVID pandemic accelerated them and made sure that there’s no going back. The relationship between business and technology has fundamentally shifted toward a new model and a different way of thinking, one that increasingly dictates who'll win and why. And that new model is Modular, the subject of this book, and what Sam Bhagwat and myself believe is the future.

Back in 2010, I was working on several iPhone app projects. I quickly saw that existing Content Management Systems (CMSes) were great for enabling marketers to manage static web pages, but these CMSes weren’t built to deliver interactive apps.  

Frustration with this approach led me to co-found Contentful in 2012, the first cloud-based, headless CMS (now a content platform). It had no built-in presentation layer (the head), but instead focused on delivering content through a powerful API. The early Contentful customers were largely iOS and Android developers, working on native mobile apps. Early on, they saw that headless was a better way to develop, and they soon wanted to use headless for building websites as well. But there was a snag: no standard approach for creating a head for a headless CMS. The web presentation layer had to be custom-made. 

That’s why I was excited when I first met Sam and Kyle Mathews, the founders of Gatsby, in 2017 in San Francisco for lunch. With Gatsby, they created a modern, decoupled presentation layer — the missing puzzle piece for a more flexible, modular web stack. We realized that we not only shared the same frustrations with the existing monolithic web CMS, but had a shared vision of what it takes to build a better modular architecture as an alternative.

We weren't the only ones to share this vision of an alternative architecture. Impossible Foods, a leader in plant-based proteins, was experiencing exponential growth, but their tech stack couldn’t keep up. Their monolithic CMS would only support static images; developer turnaround times were long and couldn’t keep up with the requests. To support their growth, they needed an accessible, adaptable, and modular architecture. With Contentful and Gatsby in their stack, content creators got an inventory of modular page options, developers could focus on strategic work, and users visited a site that was now fast, beautiful, and dynamic.

The COVID pandemic forced companies, at any stage in their digital transformation journey, to build digital products even faster to reach customers. The only way to win was with composable content and a modular architecture, stacking components together as needed, and iterating quickly based on customer feedback. 

At Contentful, we saw a great example of this. Seeing an increase in online sales at the start of 2020, IKEA wanted to shift to a multichannel, content-rich digital experience. To do that, they needed to take down the content silos that existed and find a solution to deliver adaptive content for various channels and regions. Now, all that home-decor inspiration is digital and modular. In the wake of the pandemic, this proved to be a prescient investment. 

Ten years ago, the modular ecosystem was a small group of developers. Today, it's a movement that includes some of the largest companies in the world, and includes a mature ecosystem with dozens of battle-tested solutions.

Understanding modular architectures and the rapidly evolving ecosystem around it matters to more than just developers — it is a requirement for anyone whose job involves content or customer experience. In this book, Sam provides historical knowledge and understanding of the modular ecosystem and why it is the way forward.  

When I started Contentful, there was no manual for how to build better for the modern web. I'm really excited that Sam has now written the missing manual.

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