We sit down with our CTO & Founder, to unpack his thoughts on the state of the Headless market.
You’ve been developing Headless sites for more than 10 years. What’s it like to develop a Headless site now compared to a decade ago?
10 years ago we’d be fighting against an e-commerce monolith to create a Headless/Composable experience. Today, Headless is a first-class citizen for many platforms. And all platforms seem keen to push their Headless flexibility and the benefits of Headless as a whole. This explosion in tooling and services has allowed us to vastly simplify the stack and work with platforms rather than against them. This enables us to focus more on where we can add the most significant value.
There are a lot of Headless platforms and tech choices in the market right now. How do you think brands can make better choices when it comes to their tech stack?
The biggest question you should ask yourself is - how easily can I move away from the platform I’m selecting? It may sound counterintuitive, however, the challenges you face as a brand today will change tomorrow. Pandemics, recessions, global warming - you name it, we’ve had it. A fundamental principle that has served our clients and us better than many others is the focus on planning for the unknown. Vendor-lock-in is generally at odds with this. A Headless (or better, a fully Composable architecture ) should pull the best tools to support you, and at the same time reduce the dependency on any one of them.
I’m proud to say that in 9 years, we’ve not had to embark on a traditional rebuild. We just replaced the parts of the car one at a time rather than ripping it up and starting again at any point. Just because you work with an agency, it doesn’t mean you need to accept a 3-year site life cycle. Your current site should always be your best site, and it should sit on top of your learnings.
"Headless is not the destination, but the tool to help you get there."
Given the volume of Headless tech choices for brands, do you think it’s become easier or more difficult to embark on a Headless project?
It's certainly easier than ever to embark on one. However, I wouldn't say it's easier to launch a successful Headless experience. With the explosion of Headless tech and agencies attempting to deliver Headless projects, the market is more polluted than ever.
As e-commerce platforms make the barrier to entry lower, this also means the people executing Headless experiences can be of a lower skillset. Although in the longer term this is a positive thing, in the near term it is resulting in a greater number of poorly executed, although probably far cheaper Headless experiences.
However, It’s reassuring to see innovations such as Frontend as a Service (FEaaS) trying to cater for this audience.
What are your thoughts on Frontend as a Service (FEaaS) and some of the players that are in that space like Shogun, Pack or Builder? Do these tech options give a brand the benefits of Headless without the need for a complex tech stack?
Many of these platforms started as Headless, hosted Content Management Systems (CMS’s) but are now becoming headed by evolving to frontend as a service platforms. So what I like about many players in this space is that they have tiered relationship levels. For example: fully hosted front ends, components you can use in your codebase and/or just receiving the raw data through their API.
Being intentional about this is great and generally means these sorts of environments are fertile grounds for growth. Whereas, if they only offered hosted front ends, then at some point you are likely to outgrow the platform and incur a costly migration. I will caveat this by saying not all FEaaS platforms follow this approach. One that does is Builder.io . I think those guys are great.
What is your go-to Headless stack?
It depends on the business challenges, budget, turnover etc but…
Some of our favourite tech choices recently are Astro , Svelte , Commerce Layer , DatoCMS and Algolia . Our stack is currently evolving faster than ever before. The biggest challenge we have is how to ensure the longevity to these technologies.
To aid with this we are moving to Astro for new and existing clients. Aside from a great migration path, moving away from monolithic frontends towards Island architecture or micro-frontends allows for faster development, greater stability and maintainability in the codebase.
Ultimately a monolithic frontend is no better than a monolithic backend.
Why do you think there has been an explosion in Headless in the last 3 years?
I think the drivers have been different, but a big consideration is the JS framework explosion. Developers have been moving towards single-page experiences powered by the likes of React and Vue . Building sites this way is more expensive, and potentially more brittle, but also has the ability to create fast and highly interactive user experiences which multi-page apps struggle to compete with. Hence, this approach has gained popularity.
However, in the last three years, Headless has bizarrely also been used interchangeably with an SPA frontend. To the point now that some e-commerce monoliths are starting to create “Headless offerings” which are more correctly SPA frontends within the monolith.
So in short, I believe JS frameworks and their adoption has been a big driver even though they shouldn’t have been.
Is Headless actually the right terminology? Or, should we be calling it Composable Commerce?
Of course, it depends on what you are describing and more importantly what you are trying to achieve.
Headless is decoupling the systems that power the presentation vs the backend logic. Composable takes this further and is a more holistic view whereby the whole system is deemed as a best-in-breed composition; storefront Headless experiences being part of this.
For me, Headless is not the destination, but the tool to help you get there.
Although we’ve built Headless e-commerce experiences for almost a decade the primary drive has always been composability. Pulling together the best tools in the market and creating an ecosystem that was malleable to the ever-changing needs of our clients rather than being limited to the roadmap of one service.
In short, we build Composable and Headless experiences. Composability is the real driver and benefit. This historically was synonymous with Headless, however, over the past few years, these have been increasingly decoupled. This has resulted in Headless experiences that lack Composability, and are essentially monoliths with a Single Page Application frontend. This isn’t Headless!
How important are collectives like the Mach Alliance for the Headless market? Do you think there is an opportunity for a competitor to the Mach Alliance?
As Headless becomes more literal, having groups such as the MACH Alliance push for quality standards is great. They champion core principles and their education and resources only make the Headless/Composable space better.
However, it is important to be pragmatic. The ideologies within the MACH alliance are very much aligned with Rotate°’s. But in some situations, their approach may not be right and I hope MACH are challenged if only to ensure the space is richer for it.
I’d strongly recommend people check out the MACH Alliance site - it is a great resource to make a decision as to whether the principles are right for their company.
What does the Headless market look like in five years? Will it even be a term we use? Or will it be a given like mobile-first design?
Headless will still be a term, however, it will probably become further detached from the meaning it held 10 years ago.
Fully Headless or Composable architecture isn’t always the right solution. However, if a D2C brand is generating £750,000+ a month, it’s hard to argue against the flexibility and versatility this sort of architecture can offer.
Cost has been a big barrier to date as Headless experiences tend to be more expensive to build. However, in the past few years we’ve managed to reduce the time and cost of our Headless builds to a point where they are fairly comparable to monolithic solutions. This will only help drive Headless and Composable popularity in the next five years.
Any final thoughts, Jim?
As a community and agency, we are now able to build adaptable and powerful Headless and Composable solutions previously restricted to large enterprise clients only. This means our clients have greater room for future growth, at a lower cost with greater flexibility. So exciting times ahead!