What is headless architecture?

Consider that you love the banking app you use which is supplied by your bank (Bank A), but you’re not an evangelist of the bank itself, and you want to move banks. However, the bank (Bank B) you want to move to doesn’t have an app that has all of the functionality of your existing app. You’ve a choice to make, stick with Bank A, or move to Bank B. In neither scenario are you totally satisfied.

What though, if you could move to Bank B, and still use Bank A’s app – that’s headless architecture in action. Whilst I’m not suggesting that Banks will let you do this – at least not yet. That’s an oversimplified  analogy, but hopefully it’s explained in a clear and concise way the concept behind headless architecture.

Headless architecture is about separating the presentation from functionality and indeed from data. There’s nothing really new about a headless architecture. The concept has been around in networking for a very long time since the 1970’s in fact; and it’s based on a 7 layer model called the OSI model. In this model http doesn’t really care whether its being transmitted over a cable, through the airwaves, 3G,4G or 5G or via a satellite.

Let’s extend that OSI model into the e-commerce world. What if we not only want our products on our website but also amazon, etsy, over whatsapp, twitter, facebook, instagram, (omnichannel) etc, but in order to provide a great user experience we don’t want to simply redirect the user to our website, but to a user experience thats consistent with the platform our customer is using. We do want a single stock,  product, pricing, and accounting system across all the channels thats where a headless architecture comes to the fore. An organisation gets to use the business applications which perfectly fit with its business model. Instead of importing and exporting data in bulk – the applications communicate securely in real time. Data in each system is always up to date, and acccurate.

You can’t do that with say wordpress/woocommerce or regular shopify as is, because it’s providing the functionality and presentation, and data is typically uploaded and downloaded in bulk from business systems.

Headless Architecture platforms

Some examples of headless platforms

Headless Architecture in E-Commerce

Headless architecture is the huge in the world of e-commerce, where companies are striving to provide the best user experience. Headless architecture enables them to cherry pick services and knit them into great customer experience. So now using Application Programming interfaces instead of a ecommerce platform the possibilties are endless. Omnichannel experiences – so you can use the api’s to build a native user experience selling over whatsapp; the web; spotify, instagram, mastodon, twitter or whichever platform you desire to turn your attention to. Some great examples of companies that have embraced headless e-commerce are  Nike, Mercedes-Benz,Tesla,Venus, Koala, Etsy, Disney.

So you can have a single warehousing application that stores stock and location. This warehousing application provides stock information to all your selling platforms, and an order on any platform depletes stock levels in real time to all platforms, similarly accounting, pricing orders etc.

Is it all hype and are there alternatives to Headless Architecture?

The answer is yes and no (isn’t it always in IT?). There’s alot of hype because in reality that’s how IT consultants make their money, and startups get off the ground. But it’s a valid question. The traditional CMS providers (wordpress, magento, shopify et al), managed when people started using mobile for transactions more than desktops.

There’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t write an addon (plugin/component) for any CMS which detects your coming from within instagram and provide a native looking presentation layer. In time someone is going to develop one (if it’s not already been developed). The question though is when the CMS platforms will become so bloated with addons that they become unmanageable – does this addon work with that one, When you have a significant number of addons it becomes problematic to keep them all  compatible and updated, The test phase before you promote an update to live becomes onerous and time consuming. At some stage the traditional CMS developers will develop a version of the platform that supports a headless architecture.