The Debate Over Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress

A fiery debate is raging on about Gutenberg – the new WordPress editor set to appear in version 5.0. It’s been both defended by founder Matt Mullenweg and derided by some developers. Even I chimed in with my own (very early) take. It’s by far the most controversial topic in the world of WordPress.

If you’re wondering why a rebuilt editor is causing such a stir, it’s because this project has evolved to take on a much larger scope. Rather than change just the editor, the process for creating, displaying and customizing content is up in the air. Changes to custom meta boxes are included in the project and that has a lot of people (especially those of us who do lots of customization work) a bit nervous. Designers and developers alike are waiting with baited breath and hoping that changes don’t lead to a bloody trail of broken websites.

The most logical thinking here says that there’s no way the folks working hard on Gutenberg will allow that to happen. So it’s unlikely that everyone’s customized back end is going to cease to work when 5.0 drops.

To me, the bigger debate is some of the reasoning behind Gutenberg and what it says about the future direction of the software. For example, should WordPress focus on attracting non-designers? Or, should they cede this ground to the growing number of DIY website builders like Wix or Squarespace?

WordPress Gutenberg Editor

Pro Tools

In every industry, there are tools meant just for professional applications. Like when you buy a toaster and the manual says “Not for Commercial Use”. No way that baby is going to hold up to the workload in your local diner. Instead, you’ll want a tool designed to take a beating. Regardless of its original intentions, WordPress has become a professional-grade tool for many of us.

The flexibility to create your own custom themes and plugins makes WordPress an attractive choice for everyone from freelancers to education to enterprise. All have found a way to bend and shape the CMS to fit their needs. That’s not saying it’s the only choice or always the best choice – but there’s a reason why WordPress has become the most used CMS. It offers a suite of functionality that wasn’t easily accessible before.

To me, that’s what separates WordPress from those other platforms. Things can be customized as little or as much as you want. The back end can be set up with custom fields and post types to make adding content a fill-in-the-blanks type of experience (with no design skills necessary). It can be hosted virtually anywhere and, for the most part it’s easy enough to move a site from one place to another. You’re not locked into a specific look or function. In the hands of a professional, just about any type of website is possible. WordPress offers something that other systems do not.

As someone who has built a freelance career in part by using WordPress, I appreciate what it allows me to accomplish in terms of design and functionality. It seems that no matter what type of request a client has put before me, WordPress and its vast community of developers have helped me to make it happen. Sure, there are occasional frustrations. But the end result is usually something I’m proud to have built with the software.

Everything to Everyone?

Everything to Everyone?

While I can understand the need to make the onboarding and content creation processes for new users much better, I’m not fully convinced that WordPress has to appeal to every single person who wants to build a website. Or, at least the self-hosted version of WordPress (aka WordPress.org) doesn’t have to.

WordPress.com already does a lot in this area with the ability to easily add domains and purchase other extras right from inside the CMS. The Calypso app is another step in creating a better UX for non-technical users. I think it’s fair to say that this is the flavor of WordPress that has traditionally been the place where anyone can publish for free, with the ability to do more if desired.

Even so, those who aren’t tech savvy would probably do better with a different solution. All-in-one services provide a drag-and-drop experience – albeit with less opportunities for adding new functionality and other assorted downsides. It can be argued that this is a good thing, however. If the idea is to create an experience that doesn’t put the user in over their head, options have to be limited.

Having seen the results of a business owner who (bless their heart) gets flustered and starts installing multitudes of plugins or isn’t able to customize a theme the way the want – it’s clear that this type of situation doesn’t help anyone.

That business owner has a choice between hiring a professional to customize their site or buy into a DIY platform that lets them do the very basics with a few clicks. Can the same tool really handle both situations? Should it? Those are questions for the community at large to grapple with.

The Community Debates

Many of us that work with WordPress on a daily basis feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the future of our favorite CMS. This is, after all, a community that readily shares knowledge, ideas and copious amounts of code with anyone and everyone. It’s nice to think that we’ve all contributed in some small way.

In all honesty, the current WordPress editor is indeed outdated and needs to be upgraded. It can and should be so much more user-friendly. However, people freak out when something they care about and have invested untold hours using and evangelizing undergoes a significant change. They worry that what made WordPress the amazing tool it is will somehow be lost in translation.

Gutenberg has brought about a debate that’s been stirring under the surface for some time. The question of who WordPress is designed to appeal to and how to go about making changes to it is something that everyone should think about. The real positive here is that this situation shows how many people really do care about WordPress and its future.

The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead

In my view, the experience of building content in WordPress should be made easier. From what I’ve seen of Gutenberg so far, it hits the mark in many areas – though it’s still a work in progress.

The biggest concern I have is making sure that the proper amount of time is taken to get things right. When making a change this big, the impact is going to be felt by an incredibly large number of users. While it’s great to have goals and deadlines, what if things just aren’t up to snuff for WordPress 5.0? Does Gutenberg launch, regardless of any negative consequences?

The debate we’re having is a healthy one. It’s really part of the beauty of the open source movement. WordPress is a collaborative effort and there are millions of stakeholders. Each of us has the opportunity to contribute in both official and unofficial capacities.

It’s clear that Gutenberg represents more than just a content editor. This project is part of a larger effort to take WordPress in a new direction. That’s why it’s important for all of us to have our say and argue (politely and productively) for where we’d like it to go.

The months ahead should be fascinating to watch as it all unfolds.

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