Where ProcessWire came from
The CMS is based on a system that the authors designed and developed over more than a decade of building CMSs. ProcessWire 3.x and 2.x are very similar in look and function to Dictator CMS (2003) and ProcessWire 1.0 (2007), both of which are still in use on many sites today. Despite intentions to do so, neither product was ever released open source, except for the projects the authors used them with. ProcessWire 2.0 is the first open source version, and it is architecturally stronger than the CMSs that preceded it.
Compared to ProcessWire 1.0
ProcessWire 3.x/2.x has an improved (though similar) CMS API and better module system. Version 2.0 was the first version designed for open source and as a result more effort went towards the underlying system and API. Underneath, ProcessWire 3.x/2.x is a purely API-driven content management framework that is fully functional without any sort of admin interface. Whereas ProcessWire 1 is a more traditional CMS with an API bolted on, driven around an admin interface. When it comes to that admin interface, both are very similar in look and function, as ProcessWire 2 carries through most of the look and feel of ProcessWire 1. The difference is that ProcessWire 3.x/2.x (as a CMS) is an application built on top of the ProcessWire content framework.
Why open source?
Version 2.0 of ProcessWire's code was originally created by a single developer. This has advantages and disadvantages. The intention with making ProcessWire open source is to bring more people into the project into a community effort. Version 2.1 of ProcessWire was the first version that represented a larger community effort and we consider this a major success. With version 2.3, several developers were participating in the core development, making it truly a community project. Today, much of the new code added to version 3.x originates as pull requests from GitHub.
More about ProcessWire's background and history can be found on the ProcessWire Wikipedia page.
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