The WordPress plugin marketplace is seeing quite a bit of consolidation lately. And, even if you aren’t a close follower of the business side of things, it’s likely some of these moves will impact you.
For example, the recent sale of the wildly-popular Advanced Custom Fields plugin is a pretty big deal. The free version of the plugin is active on over a million websites. And that doesn’t even include those utilizing the commercial “PRO” version. It spent 10 years as a project of solo developer Elliot Condon. Now, it’s in the hands of the team at Delicious Brains.
Other plugins changing hands include GiveWP, Kadence Blocks and Kanban for WordPress. Then there was the controversial move in which WP User Avatar was purchased and rebranded into a completely different plugin. We could go on, but you get the idea – there has been a lot of movement.
What does this flurry of activity say about the state of WordPress and its future? The following are a few thoughts on what it all means. At least, according to this user’s perspective.
The WordPress Ecosystem Is Maturing
WordPress has been around since 2003 and has grown to dominate the market. During its rise to the top, many developers jumped into the surrounding ecosystem by releasing plugins.
In some cases, these plugins were a hobby or intended as a way to give back to the open-source project. Others looked at plugin development strictly as a business opportunity. Regardless of intent, the door was wide open for anyone with an idea.
Along the way, the growth of WordPress brought with it an explosion of use cases. What started out as simple blogging software became a full-fledged content management system (CMS). WordPress is now as likely to power a large enterprise site as it is a mom-and-pop business.
This has completely changed the game for a lot of plugin authors. User expectations are high. Stability and new features are paramount to success. Not to mention having to keep up with the massive changes to WordPress core.
Frankly, it’s becoming a lot harder for solo entrepreneurs or small development shops to manage a popular plugin. Supporting a large userbase while also focusing on the future could become overwhelming.
Thus, it’s not surprising to see that some of these products are being sold off to larger firms. We saw something similar happen with internet providers back in the early 2000s. The more mature the market, the harder it became for a small company to carry out its mission. Pretty soon, they were just about all bought up by corporate interests.
While that may not fully reflect the case here, it seems to at least be trending in that direction.
For Better or Worse, Large Developers Will Hold More Sway
It stands to reason that the more popular plugins a developer acquire, the more users they have access to. This provides companies with plenty of opportunities to upsell premium products and collect user data.
A company such as Automattic, owned by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, already had an edge in this area. They were humming along thanks to their do-it-all Jetpack plugin, among other offerings. But their 2015 acquisition of WooCommerce only added to their cachet.
The amount of product movement we see now makes it looks like more companies may join the party. It will take some time. But there might come a day when a typical business website runs plugins from perhaps only a few big development houses.
This may cause a bit of concern for some observers. Seeing the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon push their weight around leads to thoughts of something similar happening with WordPress. A few big players simply set the rules for everyone else to follow.
However, there’s reason to believe things won’t become quite that dystopian. WordPress is, after all, an open-source application. Anyone with the talent and desire to build a plugin can still do so. It just may become more difficult to gain traction.
The Good and Bad of Consolidation
Consolidation is always going to be a part of business. With regards to WordPress, both themes and plugins will continue to change ownership for a variety of reasons. It’s something we should be used to by now.
But as some of the more widely-used plugins are bought and sold, we’re seeing more than just software changing hands. The entire ecosystem has the potential to change along with these moves.
On the one hand, user confidence and stability can (theoretically) be enhanced when a solo entrepreneur sells to a multi-person company. Web designers and website owners won’t have to worry quite so much about a plugin becoming extinct.
New ownership often means more resources to maintain, support, and extend the software. This could be a great thing for the WordPress community.
The potential downside is that consolidation will do to WordPress what it has traditionally done in other industries. That entails massive amounts of market share being gobbled up by a few large players, with everyone else hunting for scraps. The fear is that competition will shrink and that we may become too reliant on a small number of developers for the bulk of a site’s functionality.
Here’s hoping that a proper balance can be struck. In the long term, it’s in everyone’s best interest that the WordPress ecosystem be diverse, stable, and affordable. That will keep the CMS and its surrounding community both thriving and sustainable.