I have strong opinions on WordPress and the imminent replacement for the classic editor, Gutenberg. I haven’t waded into this discussion explicitly. However, I’m no longer developing with WordPress, and the two things are connected.
WordPress’ aim has always been to “democratise publishing”, to make writing and publishing content available to everyone. This answers the core goal of what the internet was supposed to be: giving individuals the ability to publish their own content.
Gutenberg is a significant step along this direction. It will allow content authors to design their own pages. They’ll be able to put buttons, multiple columns of content, images and other embedded content wherever they like, instead of being supplied a few templates created by their developer. Eventually the aim of the project is to allow content authors to modify, or perhaps even build, content outside the page - headers, footers and sidebars.
This is a really great move and puts WordPress squarely in front of its core user target: content authors. With this new tool and the weight of its already hefty reputation, WordPress can continue to stay relevant to its users.
But that’s the thing … it’s users. We’re talking about the end user. Not the people with whom people often get to know the platform: developers and design agencies.
What Gutenberg Means for Web Developers
When content authors can design their own pages and entire sites, the job of the web developer who works with WordPress will be both easier, and more difficult. Easier, because content authors will have all they need to do what they want almost out of the box. More difficult, because the majority of users will be those experimenting with the features WordPress introduces. I imagine a lot of them will end up breaking their sites, or rendering them into quite a different state than they were originally. I can imagine a lot of frustrated developers being asked to “put back” their sites to the way it was before they started fiddling with it.
But that’s nothing to how it’s probably going to affect web design agencies.
What Gutenberg Means for Web Design Agencies
Of all those affected by WordPress’ imminent changes, I’m most interested in how this impacts the small to medium design agency, who have been selling WordPress sites for years. For many of them, it’s been a bit of a free lunch: WordPress can be a fully featured CMS platform that you don’t have to pay for. You only need a few days’ worth of web developer time, and you have a mature product that you can sell at a good margin.
But imagine for a moment you’re Matt Mullenweg, or are on the core team of WordPress developers. You’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of commercial interests selling stuff - stuff you have made to be free - and what’s more, often selling it to your core audience.
I’m sure that would upset most product owners.
For this reason, I think we can expect to see WordPress making more effort to reconnect with it’s core audience over the coming years. Often this may be at the expense of the web development agency. To my mind, this isn’t a bad thing. WordPress has recently reiterated it’s position as a blogging platform, not a CMS. It’s driving more users to it’s hosted sites on wordpress.com, or quasi-hosted services like Jetpack. It’s bought up large integrations like WooCommerce and WP Job Manager which then work with a remote service to monitor and partly manage the software.
That’s a trend that’s only going to continue.
I think that for web dev agencies, the end of the free lunch is in sight. Many agencies are likely to rethink their tech strategies. I hope they might be inspired to turn to either mature or even some emerging technologies that more than adequately fill the space that WordPress has occupied up until now.
End (or Beginning) of a Trend
Is that really what’s happening here? Am I simply making a big assumption?
I could be.
But I think about how long it took a developer tool, wp-cli, the WordPress command line interface, to be made official, in contrast to the hot property that is Gutenberg, which is steam rolling towards release despite concerned reports from members of the development community and some pretty noisy protestations from design agencies who will either have to support older versions of WordPress, or spend money upgrading each site.
Who is the core audience here? Are WordPress looking to improve developer experience … or are they more invested in the experience of the content author? Are they even worried about how this will affect design agencies? It doesn’t seem they are worried even one bit.
It might be good to look more closely at - not WordPress, but where WordPress itself is looking - to gauge their direction. Noisy spats with Wix over their products make me think that WordPress see them as a competitor: an entirely hosted service which nonetheless has a similar proposition, that of “build your own website”.
Time for a Change?
In spite of what many developers and design agencies have been asking, I don’t think WordPress needs to change. I think web design agencies are the ones who need to reevaluate their approach.
For a long time, agencies have in many ways been snacking on the free lunch that is WordPress. This has been good for the establishment and growth of many companies. But I’ve also seen the opposite, when larger firms grow complacent of the fact that WordPress is free, is stable, and cheap to hire for.
Perhaps now is a good time to change that. Perhaps this is one of the reasons WordPress is challenging that.
Developers, if I’m right and this does start to happen, WordPress development work could start to peter out. You might need to decide whether you need to switch technologies. There’s loads happening both in the PHP field with Craft, Perch and Laravel. But there’s also serverless or JAMStack approaches to consider. Exciting stuff that is also challenging and satisfying. You never know where you might find your niche.
Yes I could be totally wrong. But for the sake of WordPress, not to mention the content authors who benefit from it, I hope I’m right.
WordPress isn’t going away any time soon. But I really believe the free lunch soon will.