WordPress: Falling Behind or Still Leading?

This morning, Twitter pointed me to an article claiming the latest and forthcoming updates to WordPress were boring and showed that WordPress itself was beginning to fall behind other leaders in web development:

Among other things, this article cited Ghost, Medium, and Squarespace as examples where WordPress has failed to innovate as quickly as other platforms.  It also broke down certain features coming with WordPress 3.8 as examples of WordPress’ failures as a thought leader.  These comparisons as hugely misstated and gloss over several key reasons WordPress is still in the lead.

Ghost

Ironically, Ghost was originally envisioned as a WordPress plugin that would evolve into a separate fork of the project that inspired it.  Ghost is beautiful, but also riddled with a few problems of its own.

Firstly, it runs on a completely different software stack than most self-hosted blogging/CMS products. I’m a user and advocate of Node JS, and even I had difficulty getting my first Ghost installation set up.  Once it was running, though, I thoroughly enjoyed using the platform.  I haven’t switched from WordPress yet for one very specific reason:

Ghost doesn’t add anything that WordPress doesn’t already have.

The one groundbreaking feature: side-by-side live content preview.  Sadly, you can only edit the markdown and not the live preview of your content, so billing this particular features as a WYSIWYG editor is difficult.  Would I like a live content preview in WordPress? Absolutely. But this implementation falls short and not having it in WordPress is a good thing.

Medium

I’ve always found it ironic that some of the leading developers in the WordPress project use Medium to blog rather than WordPress.  Ironic, not problematic.  To not use a product that’s competing in your space (and, hopefully, learn from the things it does well) is hubris.  So what does Medium do better than WordPress exactly?  Three things: the editor, the front-end experience, and the network.

The network – all content is hosted on a single, interconnected site – is great for content discovery and community.  WordPress – the software – doesn’t have this. Yet. With WordPress.com and Jetpack in the mix this is always a possibility, and not having this as a core WordPress feature isn’t a failing.

The front-end of Medium is gorgeous and, in my opinion, leagues ahead of the default WordPress theme for casual bloggers.  Read that again – for casual bloggers.  WordPress isn’t  just for bloggers any more, so comparing default themes is comparing apples to oranges.  Add in the fact that there are Medium-style themes for WordPress and it’s a non-comparison.

Finally, the editor of Medium accomplishes the goal of making blogging feel more like writing and less like filling in a form on a database application.  It’s subtle, elegant, and completely distraction free.  Wait, that sounds oddly like the distraction-free editor that ships with WordPress.

With all of this in mind, added to the fact that Medium is not open source and is only available as a hosted application, and I question the rationale behind anyone claiming it’s beating WordPress.

Squarespace

I have to admit, Squarespace has some features that look really interesting.  Their WYSIWYG content editor is far superior than the one in WordPress, but that’s an innovation that could easily be implemented anywhere (and likely will in time).  The rest of the product, however, appears to merely match WordPress’ functionality. Drag-and-drop image upload. Customizable page templates. Responsive design.  WordPress already has all this and more.

What Squarespace has that WordPress lacks, though, is a closed-source model.  You can’t download Squarespace and install it on your own server – the only way to use it is to pay someone else a monthly fee to use the software on their system.  In a world powered by open source, this is a massive failing.

WordPress 3.8

WordPress 3.8 is an experimental release.  It began development in parallel with the previous 3.7 release – a highly risky move to begin with. It’s development was also focused on feature plugins like MP6 rather than feature-centered patches against a live subversion repository.

Why does this count as experimental?

For the first time, you could run the majority of WordPress 3.8 before the software itself hit beta.  Just install the feature plugins slated for inclusion and go.  Even though the version in my footer claims I’m on 3.7.1, I’ve been running with 3.8 features since before 3.7 was released.

MP6, the new UI for WordPress 3.8, ships weekly releases.  The mentality of “release early and iterate” is alive and well here, and absent from just about any other open source (or closed source) project I’ve ever seen.

Experimental? It’s a hugely new development paradigm and so far has been very successful.

Are the features experimental?  In a way, yes.  MP6 in particular was originally part of WordPress core.  When the new UI shipped in a nightly release, the WordPress community didn’t like it. 1  Rather than forcing too-rapid of a change on the community, the UI was pulled out and rolled into a plugin to encourage ongoing development.

It’s hard to claim a project is “boring” or “standing still” when it’s moving so fast that it’s user base panics when a change that “changes nothing” but the admin theme is steeped in so much controversy.

In Conclusion

WordPress is a specific implementation of an idea – that everyone should have a voice and should be able to publish their story without the medium through which that story is told getting in the way. For many – ~20% of the Internet in fact – it does this very well.  Other products like Medium, Ghost, Tumblr, Twitter, etc are also implementations of the same idea.

They’re all different, and all work to serve a different vision of how this idea works best.  No one product is better than any of the others, but they might fit better for certain businesses, individuals, and use cases.

When it comes to features, these products share a lot.  They also seize the opportunity to innovate on features and, each of the other projects can learn from these innovations.  Does Tumblr’s popular blogging UI mean it’s leading ahead of Medium?  Not in the least.  Does Twitter’s real-time consumption model mean Ghost should pack up and go home?  No.

WordPress, among all of these, has been around the longest and has paved the way for some of these projects to exist.  It’s supported by a community of thousands and used by a community of millions.  Some of its features are revolutionary 2, while others are a bit rough around the edges.  Does this roughness mean WordPress is falling behind?  Not in the least.

An innovative feature is just that – a feature.  It’s not the character of a product or the communities that build and use it.  A feature can be copied, character can’t.  The open source nature of WordPress was unique when it was introduced and continues to lead in that space.  A rapid-development model built around this unique, open source community helps further establish WordPress as a leader in the space.

Is WordPress behind Medium and the like in the race? In ways perhaps. But not because it’s falling behind; if anything WordPress has lapped the competition.

Notes:

  1. This is putting it mildly. Many developers, and even some users, completely flipped out and began decrying the death of WordPress as a project.
  2. Revolutionary features are bound to be co-opted into other projects, so don’t think this will last forever.

Comments

  1. says

    That’s an interesting discussion, although I find the article mostly trolling and trying to bring more visitors to the site.

    In my opinion WordPress is not “falling behind”, it’s just stable and extensible enough to not break everything all the time due to engineers getting bored and trying to innovate all the time.

    I remember when Ghost was planned as a WP fork (or plugin, or whatever) and it made sense to me. WordPress is no longer a simple blogging platform, and due to it’s nature of being extensible, it’s heavy if you really want to simply blog.

    Node.js is cool and fancy, but it’s not as widely popular on shared hosting accounts being used by millions (or more) users all the time for simple things. Other hosted platforms are not open and would limit people as to what they really need in addition to the default functionality, hence the need of a regular blog-based CMS such as WordPress.

    If I see any future (or rather would like to see) in the WordPress development over the next 2 years, it would be decoupling some components to allow for lighter versions. Drupal had a similar concept many years ago, shipping a very light core only plus groups of modules for blog, CMS or anything related, to reduce the complexity of features one wouldn’t need in a project.

    • says

      Considering the future of WordPress development lies in features-developed-as-plugins I definitely think a decoupled component model would be possible. We discussed shipping WordPress core with “core plugins” once before, but the idea was slow to gain traction. We might be closer to revitalizing the concept, though.

      • says

        Hey Eric,

        I enjoyed your article, and got a chuckle from the brusque, if not rude, comment by @Mario above. (Isn’t one of the key aspects of blogging to bring more visitors to the site and/or to generate and sustain blog followers? lol)

        Your view of SquareSpace was affirming. After spending this past week looking for a non-WordPress solution for the new website we are trying to cobble together on a (no) budget, here we are now–as a result of our research on alternatives–respecting the fact that 22 million(?) websites use WordPress for good reason.

        Oh, and we totally see the intent of your article’s central theme: that the purported, imminent death of WordPress itself is an unsupportable, often-casted troll… Great post. Viva le WordPress!

        Cheers,

        Steve & Sally Wharton | Seattle

        PS – Have fun on that submarine tomorrow (saw your tweet)

    • says

      The point I was trying to make without explicitly stating it is that “different isn’t always better.” Everyone looks to “new” systems (Tumblr, Jekyl, Medium, etc) and starts claiming they’re better than WordPress. In reality, they’re just different solutions to the same problem and, really, aren’t necessarily “better” for everyone. The difference between each solution might be better for your workflow, but that just makes it a better fit for you, not a better product overall.

  2. says

    The article might have been “trolling” but the off-the-cuff thought it’s supposed to represent i’ve heard a few times. None of this taken seriously, but still not dismissed instantly either. Eric sums it up nicely though.

    Not sure if i feel embarrassed about calling out this article. I did this to not add pageviews but to field a discussion. I’m sure the number of pageviews they’ll get doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things (which if you are thinking it was linkbait, that’s sad).

    • says

      The discussion itself is valuable, and was one that came up in a private chat amongst my team last week, too. Albeit much more … productively. The article you linked to just pointed out that we need to have this discussion publicly; thank you!

    • says

      It makes for a great side-by-side preview, which is the feature Ghost currently has. The feature I want, though, is an editable preview. Show markdown (or just plaintext) on the left, live preview on the right, and allow the writer to edit either one to tell their story. Much more powerful and a better blend of markdown and WYSIWYG than a static preview.

      • says

        I was just saying, it’s not a fantastic groundbreaking feature that WordPress doesn’t have… because There’s A Plugin For That. ;)

  3. says

    Great response, Eric. I commented similarly on that post as well:

    If you’re not impressed with the amount of new features being added in 3.8, please remember that the release cycles have been compressed, meaning there is not as much time to cram things into a release. ¶ IMHO, better to be realistic and ship than to shoot for the moon and disappoint. I think the core developers learned this lesson painfully with the failed Post Formats UI of 3.6. So now shooting for the moon is what the new features-as-plugins initiative is all about: the features-as-plugins are the longer-term more exciting options. We are shooting for the moon, but we aren’t giving anyone false hopes of something for sure being included in the next core release. What’s more, these features-as-plugins can be used today, even before they get merged into core or even if they never do get merged. You can use the Widget Customizer plugin today.

    • says

      Bingo! I wasn’t sold on the features-as-plugins concept when Matt first proposed it. At the time, it felt like it was fragmenting development too much. Too many projects to keep track of, too many cooks in the kitchen. I still feel that way a bit, but I can also see the benefit of the model – and I’m OK with being proven wrong.

  4. says

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this, Eric. Spot on, in my opinion. I believe that WordPress’s extensibility and it’s aim to provide a solid core (not a super-feature-filled core, but a solid core to be built upon) is its greatest strength. I’m sure everyone that’s commented here so far has seen from huge range of projects where WordPress has been used – from “simple” blogs to enterprise applications. Jamming fancy features into core would mean making it less useful to (at least) some part of that spectrum.

    • says

      I’m a big fan of the Pareto principle. A variation of that principle is what drives how I see software development – basically, if a feature doesn’t apply for at least 80% of the use cases, it’s plugin territory. Particularly when you’re building an application framework, core library, or project template. If the change doesn’t apply to the vast majority, it’s too niche to build in.

      Yes, you could still build it in. But you’d have to add switches and options and such to disable it when not needed (or enable it when needed). With WordPress, this is best reflected in the mantra “decisions, not options.” Every option is a feature that likely applies in different ways to different people and adds clutter/bloat to the project as a whole. Some of this is necessary to make the project configurable out-of-the-box. Others are not, and make the product feel heavy.

  5. says

    Eric, let me say straight up that I’m a writer at wpmu.org, so I may be on a hiding to nothing here.

    However, your post is one of the few that actually sort to answer James’ arguments directly without resorting to the lazy ripostes of “troll” and “link-baiting”, so I’m going to chance my arm and add my thoughts.

    I think that many have either taken the points raised in the original article too literally and/or missed the main point altogether: WP’s lack of recent innovation is opening the door for competition / alternatives.

    It is not that Ghost or Medium or SquareSpace are any better than WP (clearly they are not and Ghost is actually quite poor, I think) but that they are showing that innovation in a space that we probably all considered to be quite mature is possible and is happening.

    Most importantly, this innovation is in the user experience which is not the same as the user interface which is where WP seems to be focussed.

    It’s also not about taking the efforts of volunteers and “flushing it down the toilet” (as Jeff Chandler over-emotionally put it) but questioning where those efforts are being directed.

    The preoccupation, I believe, with the existing alternatives is also misplaced. More than likely any major alternatives to WP probably haven’t even been born yet. I wrote an article a few weeks back about WP and what may need to change in the next 10 years (http://wpmu.org/does-wordpress-need-to-divide-to-conquer/).

    My belief is that there may not be a single alternative but as APIs mature, the challenge will come from a rise of services and applications that focus on one aspect of the process of creating and delivering content. As tablets and smartphones become more prevalent (plus devices we don’t even know about yet) perhaps JSON-based content delivery (rather than HTML page delivery) becomes paramount. How will WP fare in such a scenario?

    Ultimately, it’s end users, not developers, who will decide WP’s future. Yes, features as plugins may be a great step forward in the development lifecycle but that means little to the person with the WP-based e-commerce site selling her novelty socks or the small business owner who uses his site for lead generation or the president managing their sporting club’s website.

    These are the 95% of those millions of WP site owners. They want a tool (they don’t think about software) that is easy to create and maintain an online presence that looks good, is easy to manage and that is accessible to their audience across multiple platforms without them having to spend too much time or money.

    At the moment, that’s still WP. But it is naive to think that this will always be the case and as soon as alternatives appear that make it easier or cheaper (and with a WP import function) then they will be off.

    I sometimes wonder if all the strenuous cries of “WP is a CMS, not a blogging platform” is because the WP community has already given up the blogging “market”.

    WP is *the* open source publishing champion. It has almost single-handedly levelled the publishing playing field and for that many will be eternally grateful. But to keep this mantle, and to blunt, to maintain the WP-based economy, it has to keep moving with users’ (not developers) expectations.

    That’s what James was saying but perhaps because of his “robust” style many have chosen to shoot down the messenger rather than consider the message.

    And that’s a shame because genuine consideration can only be productive.

    • says

      I don’t necessarily think opening the door to competition is a bad thing. When there’s only one player in the market, features stagnate and the monopoly gives rise to its own destruction from a failure to innovate. By innovating internally with a new development process – features as plugins – WordPress is trying to make it easier to quickly develop and release new features to market. Will this take a while to catch on? Yes. Does it means WordPress is failing to innovate today? Not necessarily; the software just isn’t being innovative from the perspective of every stakeholder group at the same time.

      I agree this means little to a site owner using WordPress to build their site. Then again, neither do efforts to increase unit test coverage or standardize coding practices or optimize query performance. Yes, all of these efforts have a real impact on the quality of the product – and the quality of sites built upon it. But as selling points to convince Joe Businessowner to build his site on WordPress? Not in the least.

      But without taking steps like this, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to move WordPress to the space where we can innovate quickly and radically in terms of features site owners care about.

  6. pph123 says

    “that everyone should have a voice” is something I believe deserves more attention in comparing these solutions … and others.

    It seems to me there is something disingenuous about the “20% of the web” statistic. It is an impressive number, no doubt, but I believe it is a misleading metric considering the objective “that everyone should have a voice”.

    An indicator for that objective should be people, not sites. I don’t have real numbers available to me, but just for example, lets assume that there are 2 billion people connected to the internet and who “have a voice” on some kind of online platform. Lets assume that WordPress gives voice to 100 million (which I believe is rounding up generously) … that’s more like 5% of the people, which is much less impressive then 20% of the web.

    In that view Facebook does more for “everyone having a voice” then all the other players put together … and that is sad state of affairs.

    I believe that the way WordPress works and the way it is designed is not true to its “everyone should have a voice” vision. For many (if not most) people who deserve to have a voice WordPress is out of reach. Yes it is open-source, yes it is free, yes it is supported and developed by a passionate community. But still it is too complicated and too difficult to use for most people and that is (1) a design failure and (2) a moral failure since the objective was not to win a feature comparison chart but to “give everyone a voice”.

    WordPress is not falling behind in features, that is a dance in which leaders will always come and go. WordPress, I believe, is falling behind in fulfilling its purpose.

    • says

      I appreciate your skepticism, but I would encourage some caution here with numbers. WordPress definitely gives more people a voice than you give the software credit for. Consider some numbers:

      I work on just a handful of sites, and I can tell you from personal experience that many of the above sites have multiple users – multiple voices. Some of the hosted WordPress.com sites I work with have upwards of 50 writers. Many of the self-hosted sites (i.e. downloaded from WordPress.org) are in the same situation with multiple writers/authors/editors/speakers.

      Also take into account the one-click WordPress installers used on many popular hosting platforms. These installers don’t download a fresh copy of WordPress each time, so it’s impossible to keep track of how many sites/people are using WordPress as a result of clicking the handy “install” button on their web control panel.

      Today, WordPress powers roughly 20% of the “Internet” based on its use on the most trafficked websites online. It also powers hundreds of millions of smaller sites – some of which live only long enough to publish a single blog post.

      That said, I agree that WordPress remains out of the reach of many who deserve a voice, and I work actively to explain that to others and to change the software to fix it. We seem to agree on this point rather well, and I encourage you to get more involved as well so we can work together to make a difference.

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