When reading about solutions for next generation commerce, you might have come across the term “headless”, and you might have wondered, “well, that’s a bit cruel, right?”. After all, having no head sounds a bit like a Frankensteinian scenario. On closer inspection, however, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and I’d like to go a bit deeper into why having no head in commerce is desirable – even more, being able to use various heads is one of the key concepts for modern commerce architecture.

Typically, when people communicate with each other, they do it face to face. They look at each other, form words and sentences with their mouths and gauge the reaction of the other by looking at facial expressions. If it weren’t for the heads everybody is carrying around on his or her shoulders, it would be a pretty boring – and quiet! – life, right? In the world of computing, the “head” therefore is a metaphor for everything we can look at and talk to. So a shopping website, a mobile app, even a voice assistant like Siri are “heads” we communicate with. It’s a user-friendly way of accessing all the processes, data and knowledge that are hidden in the “body”.
This brings us to the second part of the image: Of course, every living being needs a body to be able to live and to provide the head with nutrients and energy. And every software application requires databases and algorithms which make it useful in the first place. In other words, talking about “head” and “body” in this context is a more lively metaphor for the differentiation between “frontend” and “backend” you might have heard of before. But what’s this whole headless business all about and how do retailers benefit?

One Head Today, One Head Tomorrow

Imagine a Lego figurine: It’s very easy to rip off its head and put on a new one. So it’s very easy to exchange the serene face of your regular Lego farmer with the evil, mischievous head of Darth Vader. So the body stays the same, only the head changes. So while this might be startling for your kids who encounter those new creations, being able to switch heads quickly is a godsend for modern retailers. If they would like to offer a new mobile application to their customers, they just need to worry about the frontend they use. In other words, they need to make sure that they build an app that’s fast, beautiful to look at and working on both iOS and Android machines; what they don’t have to worry about is the body. After all, it doesn’t change; it just gets a new head. So using a headless commerce solution such as the commercetools platform, retailers can come up with a whole range of new frontends and rely on their existing backend. So, whatever new frontend technology will evolve in the future – think IoT, think smartwatches, think voice commerce, think chatbots – the “body” is always there, fulfilling its duties in the background.

How Is This Even Possible?

Technically speaking, the key to the communication between the head and the body is a smart API: This enables all data to travel freely between frontend and backend and make the whole system work seamlessly. We built the commercetools API in a way that it does not care about where a particular input comes from: It makes no difference whether an order is issued by a regular web store or via a voice message. Vice versa, it does not care whether it sends product data to be shown in a mobile app or used by a chatbot. The content of the communication always stays the same – and it depends on the head to shape the outer form.
There you have it. And next time you hear about “headless” – don’t worry too much, it’s actually a good thing – both regarding toys and commerce.