I haven’t always been a WordPress developer, but anytime I get excited about a new framework, CMS, or platform I always end up coming back to WordPress both out of general principle and because it offers a more well-rounded package. Many others offer solutions to fix a specific problem, but WordPress has always had the mission to build a platform for most people with accessibility, security, and ease of use and setup in mind. I can’t say that’s true for all others.
The future of WordPress is in flux right now and the platform that was introduced to us in 2003 is barely recognizable by comparison. It’s taken fifteen years to get us to Version 5.0. Arguably, progress has been slow.
It could also be argued that perhaps the internet landscape hasn’t changed as much as it sometimes appears to have changed in that time. I thought it’d be good to examine the future of WordPress, how it got started, how it evolved, and to see where we’re going and why.
The year was 2003, 5-hour ENERGY had just hit the market and WordPress was born from the ashes of a dying/dead B2 Cafelog, a super-basic-early-aughts blogging platform. It was nothing fancy, although a lot of the original functionality exists to this day like posts, categories, templates, etc. I found nothing to suggest at this moment in history Matt Mullenweg or Mike Little had any mission with WordPress other than to resurrect and improve upon the B2 Cafelog platform.
It was the year of “Napoleon Dynamite” and progress. WordPress starts to take off and become the platform we know today. The ability to add and create plugins was added to the WordPress Core and seemingly made open-source look cool. A few other features were added like drafts and private posts, but the main takeaway from this year’s releases was plugins.
Gwen Stefani gave us “Hollaback Girl” and this was the year I got involved with WordPress. Early that year, themes were introduced. This was what set WordPress apart from the other players in the game—the first real and legitimate ability for developers to customize their new blog at the code level. Before this, there was some minor ability to customize, but not to the extent that Kubrick did.
From 2005 to this point in history, there were minor updates but no major movement. I consider this three-year gap the first lull in WordPress progress. The internet changed a lot, but was also still in its infancy and getting its footing during that gap and was waiting for something new to happen. 2008 was the first introduction, with the help of Happy Cog, of the WordPress admin dashboard the way we think of the admin dashboard today… although very much Web 2.0, which was fitting because it was the release of WordPress version 2.0 that added this new interface.
This was the first real shift toward WordPress as a platform and a company as we know it working toward a WordPress as a CMS which, as of this point in history, WordPress was insistent it was not.
A lot happened in 2010, but the main takeaway from this year was the release of WordPress Version 3.0. This version of WordPress introduced more CMS-like features like custom post types, taxonomies, etc., and the previously separate Multisite functionality was officially available in Core. This release also came with the first year-branded WordPress Core theme: Twenty Ten.
From to 2011 to early 2017, any releases were essentially updates, such as feature improvements and new functionality all geared toward making WordPress more robust and developers’ lives easier. Things like mobile-responsive interfaces, TinyMCE/Post Editor updates, and the Theme Customizer were added, but nothing that really shook the foundation of WordPress. This was what I consider to be the second lull in WordPress history.
Mid 2017 and Beyond
In June of 2017, WordPress released Version 4.8 which brought us a taste of the Project Gutenberg, a new post editing experience that has me a little conflicted. Gutenberg provided a new and more modern writing experience, something that I believed that WordPress so desperately needed. Nothing much more changed with the admin or other aspects of Core, per se, other than this. Gutenberg wasn’t yet part Core at this point but was provided as part of an optional plugin, and messages to try it out began with Version 4.9 since it was set to be merged into Core with Version 5.0, which released on December 6, 2018.
Gutenberg was met with generally unfavorable reviews and currently has about 2.5 stars with over 1,500 reviews. Shortly after it’s announcement, articles like “Please Don’t Include This in WordPress Core” and “WordPress, What Were You Thinking!?” spread like wildfire. I found far fewer positive reviews of Gutenberg, though they did exist, calling Gutenberg the long overdue update WordPress needed.
The main criticism was (and perhaps still is) that it was riddled with bugs and just wasn’t ready for public review yet. I have my own personal opinions about Gutenberg. For example, its use of React, its abstraction, and the way things have gone down with WordPress and organization of that project caught my attention, but I chose to reserve my comments until after WordPress version 5.0 was released.
As far as I can tell, there are two perspectives of Project Gutenberg: the user and the developer. The user will experience a better, more modern interface for writing content. Assuming it works as expected, this should be quicker, more visually in-line with what exists on the frontend of the website (something that was never all that easy to achieve for users in the past).
For developers, such as myself, we are viewing this as the first real and major shift in WordPress Core history. Up to this point, WordPress has more or less remained the same for nearly fifteen years, improving for sure, but there hasn’t been a fundamental change in the way developers would build or interact with websites in this way.
What is Gutenberg?
I touched on this briefly, but the goal of the project is to “impact the entire publishing experience including customization,” and as Matt Mullenweg explained:
The editor will create a new page- and post-building experience that makes writing rich posts effortless, and has “blocks” to make it easy what today might take shortcodes, custom HTML, or “mystery meat” embed discovery. — Matt Mullenweg
The updates only really affect the post editing experience as of now, but anything I’ve read up until this point suggests that Gutenberg could influence every aspect of WordPress into the future.
Gutenberg provides users with “Blocks” that allow various out-of-the-box functionality that gives them more control over how information is laid out and what information a user has access to. Gutenberg comes pre-installed with several “Common” blocks:
- Paragraph — standard WYSIWYG field.
- Cover Image — essentially a hero image.
- Custom HTML
- Preformatted Text
- Columns (beta)
- More Link
- Page Break
- Various Widgets
- Various Embeds
Everything that comes out of the box with Gutenberg can currently be added in the standard WYSIWYG/Tiny MCE editor that exists in WordPress Core. The only real difference is that instead of writing and adding elements in-line you’d need to add a new block. This makes the writing experience, in my opinion, a little more disjointed, but also forces a bit more consistency from post to post, which I also believe is infinitely important and needed in current web design.
Nobody likes change. When Apple changed their 30-pin connector to the lightning port people were in an uprise until they actually used it with any regularity. It ended up being a good thing. I think that’s where we’re at with Gutenberg right now. I think the controversy is mostly centered around accessibility. This idea of “WordPress for all” no longer seems to apply to Gutenberg. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still a work in progress. That said, I can understand the concern of the current state of the platform.
The Future of WordPress
The future of WordPress’ growth will come down to the next several months and how public outcry about Gutenberg is handled. No doubt they have the best intentions in mind and have goals they’d like to accomplish, but determining whether or not this step is the right move for the future of the platform is up in the air. It’s obvious to me that people are itching for a change. WordPress as a platform is far less robust than something like Squarespace or Weebly, as far as user interaction is concerned, but those platforms are also proprietary and closed-source, not to mention far more complicated than they probably need to be.
Gutenberg is for sure far more complicated than any previously-proposed feature of WordPress and that will take some getting used to. Nothing anymore is as simple as it used to be. The internet is far more robust and complicated than it was in 2003. This may, and I’m banking on it, be the beginning of an internet that no longer allows for just “easy,” but rather strives for “better.”