If you’ve been involved in WordPress over the past few years you’ll have seen it change from being an excellent but limited blogging platform into something on which you can build much more complex websites. We ourselves have been involved in some pretty sophisticated uses of the system – for example, over at Telecoms.com which makes extensive use of various elements of WP functionality as well as having quite a lot of custom code bolted in.
WordPress is, frankly, very good – the focus on the user experience helps make it so, even if architecturally it has its limitations. This has led to stellar success for the platform and is a credit to everyone involved.
However, over the past year or so there have been a number of controversies – there was the pulling of themes from the WordPress.org repository if there was even a hint of its author profiting from non GPL themes – even if the profiting was just from an affiliate link. Then there’s the airbrushing out of Edublogs’ and WPMU.org’s links from various official WordPress pages.
This has caused some friction in the WordPress based industry. Folk just don’t know what’s happening. In part that could be seen as being a problem caused by differences in business needs and approaches. Ultimately, Matt Mullenweg is the leader of both the open source WordPress application, and the leader of Automattic. The latter is a commercial company, funded with a significant amount of venture capital. It has to make money. It also funds a lot of WP development, releases a lot of code, and evangelises the product. But what we do all have to accept is that Automattic’s business needs are not necessarily the same as every other business in the WordPress market.
Automattic are Good for Us
Yes, they are. All of us running businesses based around WP benefit from their input. Automattic also benefits when we contribute themes, plugins and so on.
Thing is, it’s not their job to run our business for us. The relationship between your WordPress business and Automattic is actually pretty loose. They’re happy for you to run whatever business you like around the product – and if they like you, they may even promote you a little. Their choice. If they stop promoting you, then that’s actually just tough. I whinged about this when it happened a year ago, but after quite a long e-mail exchange with Matt himself, and then even meeting him in person, I started to realise that I had no particular right to expect favours from him or his company. If I wanted promotion from him, I had to make him happy. We changed approach, he promoted us. Simple.
Add Value to Extract Value
In developing an awesome theme or plugin, whether GPL or not, you add some value to the WordPress ecosystem. Just a little, but it’s there. But you’ve probably extracted at least as much already. So don’t pat yourself on the back too hard.
What you need to do is to do things that Automattic won’t or can’t do. And for that, I’m thinking distributions. Bundled up, pre-configured editions of WordPress that have all the plugins and configurations that are required for specific purposes.
Some of what we’ve developed is very specific to the News & Media industry. If we release a suite of plugins to the WordPress.org repository and people download them individually they may not work in a way that would be expected. Instructions could help, but in effect you’re asking a user to build up their own site. People don’t want to do that. It’s complicated and demands a good understanding of the system, the plugins, and the dependent themes.
It’s About Making it Easy
In Linux, there is still something of a perception that it’s a DIY system. And really, that was the case in the early days – you took the Kernel, added whatever bits you needed, and you were off. It was basic, a little clunky, but very flexible. However, most people’s needs are generally fairly similar. Corporates have one set of needs, people with old machines another, private users another again and so on.
What happened to address this, and where the real value in Linux came, was when other companies started to build businesses around specialist distributions. RedHat has their distributions, which do well in the corporate and web serving sphere. Ubuntu is doing fabulously well on the smaller user desktop.
These distributions make life easier for users and clients because they know their needs, and then it’s just a case of finding the nearest match. Linux is not the answer to their problems – the bundled up solutions are the answer. You can then issue packages of software designed for those distributions.
It’s About Business
Ultimately, we all need to succeed in order to invest in our businesses and feed ourselves. We can enjoy coding for pleasure, but you can’t enjoy it if your house is unheated and your children going out in bare feet. There’s a myth in some sectors of the GPL industry that it’s all about giving stuff away. It’s not – a lot about the GPL is actually about helping fellow developers to run their businesses. Coders have shared code freely for years – the GPL is just a formalisation of the developer’s mindset.
How it Could Work With WordPress
With WordPress, there isn’t much money to be made in plugins right now. Themes have done a little bit better, but they’re a more consumer oriented product which suit certain purposes. Sometimes the themes bundle plugins to help things along. Sometimes they don’t. But the business behind all of these is based purely on supporting the theme. For everything else, the consumer is on their own. Worse still, if they use a suite of plugins (premium or otherwise) they may have to deal with various entities in order to get support. It’s a nightmare for a company where complexity in products is undesirable.
What many companies really just want is simplicity. Money isn’t necessarily the problem. They’re running businesses worth millions or even billions. If a core component of that business (a website, an intranet, whatever) fails or leaves them stranded then they have big big problems.
So what I believe will come is a marketplace where some companies will offer WordPress distributions suited to particular tasks. Some will be for heavy marketing, others high-profile bloggers, and so on. Each will have different minimum server specifications, come with support packages, and will provide a one-stop-shop. Each plugin will have been tested in that combination, and they will all be supported by the distributor.
Plugin authors will benefit too – a company using a plugin as a core part of their business will gain from keeping that plugin developer happy. Money will flow (trust me on this!) and when new requirements are identified they will pass this on to the plugin developer, along with the funds to pay for it.
Theme developers will be mixed – the best developers will simply create frameworks, with a base styling, for given purposes. Designers will then be freed of almost all coding needs and will simply put together a nice child theme. I anticipate that there will be three or four frameworks coming to the fore, with three or fore distributions offering different variations of framework – all carefully selected for the job.
These distributions and their support packs won’t be cheap (although for some the downloads could be free). But they will be dependable. You will find distributions of WordPress for high security blogs, brochure sites, news sites, membership sites and so on. No more worrying about plugin interactions, and upgrades will be simpler because all plugins, frameworks and the distribution will upgrade all at the same time. Your life will become easier.
WordPress.org will continue to be the central point for the project, and it will be the reference point. Distributions will most certainly contribute to the product to help keep their businesses going. A fork is unlikely happen – not unless the differences in need between the source project and the distributions diverge dramatically.
Companies will be able to base their businesses on distributions which best suit their needs. If you’re specialising in Intranets, then use the WP Intranet distro. If you specialise in hardened sites for governments, use the WP Ultra-Secure distro. This will help companies.
Similarly, if you’re a theme developer, you may wish to actively support distributions that are particularly suited to your style. And you’ll know what plugins and widgets will be included by default, so you can included styling for those too.
And different distributions will have different cultures and attitudes. Some will be more favourable to non-GPL publishers, and others much more hardline. Some will create courses, certifications, books and support infrastructures while others will be more casual.
In the long run, WordPress has great potential as a publishing and communication tool – it does some things so right, so easily, that so long as this principle of simplicity is adhered to then there will be business opportunities surrounding it. There’s no point getting into arguments with Automattic or Matt – just get on with it and find places to add value. The risks may be higher, but that will mean the rewards will grow too. Think about it.
What Do You Think?
Is this likely to be the way forward for WordPress based businesses? Will it confuse users? Could it make things better? Comments, please!