One of the many highlights of WordCamp Europe 2020, the biggest online WordPress event in history was the conversation with Matt Mullenweg on the future of WordPress. Firstly he and Matías Ventura looked at upcoming features for Gutenberg, WordPress’s revolutionary new editor. Some of those will be shipped around August, in WordPress 5.5. After that, they did a 40-minutes Q&A. I cherry-picked some of the many highlights and transcribed those insights for you.
- Gutenberg Demo
- The State of Gutenberg and WordPress 5.5
- How Gutenberg’s License might affect Adoption
- Moving Humanity Forward with Open-Source WordPress
- Is WordPress a Monopoly?
- HTML in Gutenberg
- A Paywall Site in Gutenberg Without Coding
- Are Freelancers and Agencies in Danger as WordPress Gets so User-friendly?
- Images and Image APIs in Gutenberg
- How to Train Users in Using Gutenberg?
- WordPress, e-Commerce, and Shopify
- Pay it forward; Grow WordPress through Radical Generosity
Before taking the questions from the audience, Matt and Matías gave an extensive demo of Gutenberg’s new features. If you’re into editing content, it’s absolutely worth the 15 minutes to watch the video!
Matías: And that’s just for the editor. There are also some very cool features like auto-updates for themes and plugins, lazy loading of images; sitemaps. It’s going to be a pretty big release.
Google has this new Web Vitals product and I ran it against my site and all the slowest things on my site were YouTube. We probably should do a lazy load on embeds as well. So we got a little bit of time to get that in.
I just want to take a moment to zoom out as well, for those who haven’t looked at Gutenstats.blog in a while.
- Over 45 million sites write in Gutenberg now, 45 million!
- And 92 million posts have been made with it and it will be well over a hundred by the time that 5.5 comes out.
So this is incredible, a hundred million posts. Is that the Library of Congress? It’s hard to imagine even! How many Wikipedia’s is that?
It’s a lot and a lot has been written in Gutenberg, and that sort of feedback loop is what’s helped it get better and better. So thank you very much. Also applause to the Gutenberg team for listening.
Matías: Another fun stat that I saw on WordPress.com sites, is that the spacer block is one of the most used blocks. To me that hints that there’s still a lot of work to do, as using a spacer is not really something you want people to be doing. So that to me points towards still the work we need to do on layout, on alignments, on the integration with themes. There’s a lot of room for improvement.
I’ll just throw something out there I’ve been thinking about. Just so the community can think about it too.
As you all know, I’m pretty heavy GPL, but on the mobile side, I feel like Gutenberg adoption is being limited by the license because of the way mobile apps are compiled and distributed.
That would mean only a fully GPL app could use Gutenberg. That’s a little bit of a big lift and not the same as what happens with Gutenberg on the web, where you can just embed it. On the web, other things like MailChimp could use Gutenberg, and that would be totally fine.
So I’ve been wondering if we should do some sort of a dual license with MIT. Probably MIT has been one of the other best licenses. It could say that it still has to be open source and GPL, but then allowing the embedding on the mobile side with a well understood, respected open-source license.
But if we did that, we need to get an agreement from everyone who has contributed so far, which could be a big lift.
Matías: I think I heard that Google was building an editor for AMP Stories. Originally it was built on Gutenberg, but then it pivoted away, I think because of issues with the licenses. Also in the mobile space, they’re also related to some of that reluctancy, I think.
The amazingness of open source comes from when it gets people who might build different solutions or compete, working together. Essentially it’s like a copyright hack to do so.
How awesome would it be if all the Google engineers working on the AMP Story thing were contributing to core Gutenberg right now? Yeah, I was actually [unhappy], when they moved off.
What are you currently most concerned about in WordPress’s development and its community?
I would say first and foremost, I’m just concerned about the health and safety of people in the WordPress community.
We have noticed some drop in contribution. Longterm, we want to make sure that we’re bringing people back in and everything. But honestly, I also understand that as people are working from home or lockdown situations.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of social stuff going on all over the world. But when we can come together and work together and build something that moves humanity forward with open-source WordPress, I think that it can be just a nice break as well from everything else going on.
In some places, we’re getting 20, 30% employment, which is a big, big economic risk to people. That said, e-Commerce and websites are growing. We’ve seen a huge boost on both. 20, 30, 40% year over year, and some things doubling year over year.
So, if we can help people through working with WordPress Core, working on plugins or whatever, and get better at WooCommerce, WordPress, or all of the things built on top of WordPress, I think that could actually provide a lot of economic opportunity for people, for whom the normal jobs might be in shaky territory.
Monique Dubbelman: WordPress seems to be heading for a monopolistic position, if not there already. Do you think the lack of competition is a good thing?
Well, I do not think we have a lack of competition. We have public market competitors with market caps now of hundreds of billions of dollars. If you think of Shopify, Wix, Squarespace, GoDaddy site builder, Magento, Big Commerce, … Adobe. In every single area of what we do, there are big players competing. So I do not feel that we have a lack of competition.
I am really proud of the market share we’ve been able to get so far. I believe the latest number is about 37%.
Now monopoly, to me, defines a corporation controlling things, to the detriment of consumers and society using a monopolistic position. There are legal definitions of this in most countries and WordPress would fit none of them.
The control is … y’all! As a group of volunteers and people who show up to the committers meetings and make patches and everything like that.
The check on that control is the ability to fork. Anyone at any day could start a fork, change everything, and have a different direction. And there’ve been forks for WordPress as with some significant usage and contributors as recent as the last two years.
And then finally, we don’t talk about Linux being a monopoly, even though apparently from what I heard, Linux was just part of the space X spaceship, which went to space.
In WordPress typically 90, 95% of the contributors are from companies that are not automatic. When you think about Linux or MySQL or NginX or these other things, we don’t talk about being the monopolies because you don’t have that monopoly power over consumers.
And then finally there’s the license, right? The GPL license is a bill of rights for every single user and developer of WordPress, which provides you inalienable rights that no one can ever take away; don’t forget that. So that is why WordPress is much more like a country than it is to software that anyone owns. WordPress belongs to all of us.
The beautiful thing about open source projects is they can have a flywheel. Oh, by the way, just because something’s open source doesn’t mean it wins in the marketplace. There are hundreds, if not thousands of open source CMSs out there that aren’t growing in the same way that WordPress is. What happens at the best though, is that you get a flywheel effect.
A flywheel is like a really large, heavy stone or wheel. Something that is hard to get started; you need to push really hard. But once it gets started, it has a ton of angular momentum and stored potential energy. Once it’s going, it’s difficult to stop.
So open-source at its best, gets more users, which then gets more developers, which then gets more users, which gets more developers. And by getting people to work together, instead of creating proprietary solutions, there’s that positive flywheel. So the more users, the better it gets. You get things built on it like Yoast and WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads and all of these other amazing plugins, 55,000 now.
In economics, this is called economies of scale. And it’s actually really good for humanity and society when those things happen because instead of a lot of wasted effort on duplicative solutions, we’re able to work together to make one thing that is best for everyone.
Will there be the option to switch HTML and visual without breaking blocks?
I think you can already, right?
Yeah, if things are breaking, it should be considered bugs most of the time.
I’ve been doing HTML my whole adult life, but I find the block editor much faster and easier to do things with, especially when you’re moving stuff around, without having to copy and paste. But I do like to go HTML and tweak sometimes.
Just being able to surgically go into a single block is almost like a way to shortcut. Before, I could switch the whole editor to be HTML, but I needed to find the spot where I was finding my place a little bit, especially in a long post. That can be a little frustrating.
But just being able to go and have that really nice rich HTML editor is probably one of my favorite features. It’s like the best of no-code and having code, right? These no-code platforms are overly abstracting and they end up just recreating something like Gutenberg.
And I’m really excited about how Gutenberg makes learning easy. You can turn over any block and see the code that’s powering it. Anyone who wants to look at can see “how did they do this?”
On a per-block level, you can see exactly the code that makes that image, or makes that link, or makes that column. I think this is an amazing way for hopefully millions of people to learn HTML for the next decade.
One cool thing I saw is a paywall block that lets you gate content behind a subscription and that’s implemented as a block. So you can not have a parent block, which then puts part of the post or whatever’s inside of that says like, Hey, subscribe to get more, this is a good example of something that would have required code before or custom templates or things like that. You wouldn’t have needed to write some PHP to really efficiently do that. And now just visually you can have some content in front of the paywall and some conduct behind the paywall. And that’s pretty cool actually. Like it’s something that I wouldn’t have anticipated, but it’s been a lot of power in terms of configuration of the block.
As WordPress heads towards a full site block editor, is there a danger that if we make the creation of customized sites too easy, that this results in less demand for freelancers and agencies, resulting in a possible reduction of community involvement in the project?
I think every time we add something new to WordPress, there’s a theory that that could happen. To be honest, it probably could. The same argument came from WYSIWYG. Just to give it some perspectives. What has happened every previous time that technology made WordPress more accessible to a nontechnical audience or wider audience, is the ecosystem grows so much that it creates a lot more opportunity.
So maybe the percent of people who hire a freelancer goes down from 10% to 5%, but at the same time, the total users or WordPress went from 10 million to 40 million or something like that. I’m just making up the numbers. So it’s more than offset by the growth. And this is why most WordPress businesses are at the biggest they’ve ever been and they’ve been growing. Particularly if they weren’t relying on a single industry, like travel, I’ve actually seen all-time highs even in this time of real economic uncertainty.
I do think that where people find value in hiring someone might change. So they might find value in someone to set up the site, but not just to make edits and customizations. Like if they want to change the hours or the menu on their site, they don’t want to maybe pay you to do that. And you can do that through blocks so they can edit it themselves. That’s been a trend that’s been going on for 20 years. I don’t know if that’s too huge.
And finally what’s cool is that freelancers can do different things. Another version of this question that I hear sometimes from news agencies or media is they’re like, “If we just use WordPress, our site will be like every other site in the world. We don’t want to be just a WordPress. We need to be different.”
Then usually it’s like, “So we need to build a custom CMS”. And there they go, going to spend thousands of hours recreating the things that are the same on everyone’s site. You’re log-in, your editor. You’re taxonomy, your archive pages, search, like all that sort of stuff. To be honest, a lot of freelance work might currently be recreating stuff that should be easy. Make something that’s truly unique, focus the developer time, the effort, the resources on something that really does distinguish. So use WordPress as a platform to build an application on top of.
We now have so many examples of that; plugins and themes that are really incredible. In different times, when WordPress was not such a good platform, they would just be their own platforms. Today, they have hundreds of thousands of users. For example builders like Divi, Beaver, or Elementor; in terms of their user-base they’re bigger than entire other companies. The number of people using like Divi is probably larger than the number of sites on Weebly now. And that’s wild. So, and that’s just a plugin for WordPress.
And then finally, if anyone ever says, “just” when describing anything in the WordPress community, your antenna should go up and be like, “Wait, like, ‘just’?”. It’s not just anything. It’s actually, perhaps one of the most powerful ways to get distribution and simplicity and speed and scalability of a stack, built on WordPress, then you could with almost any other kind of website building technology out there.
The next question is from Joost. Will the API for the image stuff be available to use in other parts of the editor?
Matías: Yes, absolutely. Most of the features in the editor, they start in a specific block, just to figure out the specific interactions, but then it should be applied to the cover block, even to videos in some way; cropping videos would be, would be fun too.
I bet what Yoast is thinking of is customizing images that show up on social. That’d be so cool if that uses this editor, because that’s all about zooming, cropping, aligning, et cetera. So that would be pretty slick.
It does drive me crazy right now that when I set a featured image, cause I want to show up on social networks. But then it also goes to the top of the post as a giant image. I’m like, “Oh no, I don’t really want it there”.
Matías: That’s one of the main things as we’re getting to this point where we can represent everything in blocks. This would unlock a lot of these things. Small customization, like showing or not showing the featured image, can become a lot more intuitive when everything is represented in the same way.
Although I like in-person events, I do look forward to our next iterations of this virtual stuff. Essentially we’re in the metaverse right now. WordPress is going to be the printing press and the application layer. This virtual event is maybe accelerating us five or 10 years from what we would have done otherwise, but we would have ended up doing this someday. Anyway.
How to avoid sites from falling apart when editing with Gutenberg?
Matías: This goes back to the question before, as well by the freelancers and agencies. You can lock down pieces of the website. Like maybe you want to lock out the actual layout structure and you want to let people modify the text and the content and swap the images. But you don’t want a grid structure with columns to be manipulated. All of those things should be possible. And it’s up to the site manager, how they want to configure that for users.
The fundamental problem with patterns is similar to the problem we have with the theme preview.
If a theme has customizable colors, you don’t want someone to pick that theme because it’s yellow, as it could actually be yellow or blue or whatever they want, but how do you display that in the preview, that it can have all these variations? How do we show a cool cover block pattern, but also let people know that they can align the text differently so they shouldn’t choose it just because this one’s in the corner and this one’s in that corner?
We do need more of an interactive tutorial. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, something that maybe it’s on slash Gutenberg on wordpress.org or something like that, that it kind of walks you through all this cool new stuff, and then it maybe gives you a level, right?
Gutenberg as a video game:
- Like here’s the intro level, here’s level one, here’s level two and you kind of go through and do these things, like here’s adding an image.
- And then, level eight might be the maximum level in 2020, but then by 2022, we’ve added like five more levels because we have new cooler functionality.
- A skills matrix, tracking what people have done; wordpress.org would actually be kind of a cool place to do it.
Basically create a WordPress.org video game. I think it would be really, really powerful for education because Gutenberg can really teach you things in-line. It’s part of the beauty of it.
@Zonua: “Matt, you’ve mentioned e-commerce and Shopify. Shopify seems to be growing in popularity and it’s really user friendly. Do you think the WordPress community is threatened by this?”
It’s interesting. So for a long time, the top three CMSs in the world by market share we’re all open-source. It was WordPress, Drupal, Joomla. WordPress is still growing the most there, but number two is now Shopify with 2.1% or 2.2% of the top 10 million websites. So that means they’ve passed up our two open-source cousins that we’ve always competed with, but really kind of secretly loved, because we’re all part of the same GPL family. That’s Drupal and Joomla.
So I think that shows that there can be a proprietary flywheel as well that doesn’t have community. It doesn’t have volunteers, it doesn’t have the love that we have, but it has lots of cash put into it. And so they hired lots of people and invest quite a bit into making software better.
Shopify is around a billion dollars a year in revenue. The WordPress ecosystem, I think is probably five or 10 times larger than that; call it somewhere between eight to $10 billion a year, but so little of that goes back into making the core better, and that is our biggest risk.
So the biggest risk to our flywheel is a tragedy of the commons, where more and more companies sort of benefit from WordPress and make their business or build their living on WordPress, but don’t use five for the future, which is our program to say like, “Hey, if you benefit from WordPress in some way, take 5% of your time, money, coding, whatever it is, and try to put it back into that pure open-source core as a way to make sure that there’s still something in the middle, a commons for ourselves to benefit from”. That’s also why we’ve created a Five for the Future page on WordPress.org.
And I’m constantly thanking companies like Yoast, actually, that is a great example, that just donate so much back, actually disproportionate to almost every other company in the WordPress community, of their time and efforts back into making core better. We just gotta get more of that.
If we do that right, if we really do fight for the future, I think that there is no risk, and WordPress can create the operating system for the metaverse and it can be completely open and provide freedom to every person operating this new world.
But if we don’t do it right, we might end up in a Facebook or Microsoft Windows scenario. Where some proprietary alternative nails that feedback loop and you end up with the kind of dearth of innovation that happens like the operating systems from 1988 to like 2005 when windows had, what I would term, a monopoly and actually governments termed a monopoly in a bad way. So that’s the risk.
So I guess, and I guess in closing now, as we’re wrapping up, that would be my one request to everyone: WordPress works because we all work on it. So think about what is a way that you can learn or give back and help people out.
Learn more about current CMS market shares in this Analysis by Joost de Valk.
I saw a question we didn’t get to like, how do we bring the next generation on WordPress? Well, mentor them, teach them, pick a youngster, and say …
“Hey! Would you like to learn a technology that will make you eminently employable and let you build things that all your friends will be impressed with and jealous of, and give you superpowers on the web?”Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp Europe 2020 on paying it forward to grow the WordPress community
This happens one person at a time and almost every contributor to WordPress has a version of this story where someone took them under their wing.
I benefited so much in my early days, again, a 19-year-old kid in Houston, learning so much from Mike Little, Alex King, and all the other early contributors who had a lot more coding experience than I did.
This is just an example of how you pay it forward. In this difficult time, when there’s a lot of folks trying to separate us and divide us, that radical generosity and empathy of paying it forward, helping others, giving things away, is a radical act that, I think, is the solution to at least a lot of what we’re facing in problems on the web and maybe can provide a template for what we can do and other areas of life as well.