WordPress in 2016: How the REST API and Calypso Will Force Change

This year has undeniably been a big year for WordPress. From the good (the REST API being merged into core), the bad (the REST API being merged into core, if you’re scared of JavaScript) to the ugly (#wpdrama, anyone?), it’s been a year when WordPress seems to have puffed out its chest and finally started the process of maturing into an application platform.

The next year is set to be even bigger. The REST API will start to bed down and get more widespread usage, new tools for advanced development are coming on board (such as WP_CLI, which lets you interact with REST via the command line), and Calypso is likely to migrate from WordPress.com and Jetpack to self-hosted WordPress sites.

So what does this all mean for WordPress users and developers? It means a lot. The REST API, in particular, and the Calypso interface that makes use of it, will introduce WordPress to a new audience of developers who don’t work with PHP and users who’ve been put off by WordPress’, frankly, confusing interface.

So, what will this look like in detail? Let’s pull out the crystal ball and take a look…

The User Interface Will Improve

If you haven’t given Calypso a try yet, I recommend taking a look at it. While it doesn’t yet affect most of us who have self-hosted WordPress sites, it represents the biggest change to the admin interface since WordPress was launched more than 11 years ago. It’s been implemented in WordPress.com and in the Jetpack plugin, so if you’re running a self-hosted site with Jetpack installed, you’ll be able to use the new Calypso interface.

It’s worth mentioning that Calypso isn’t an alternative interface for your existing WordPress admin screens: it’s a completely separate application that interacts with your site using the REST API. To use it, you need to install and activate the WordPress.com desktop app or log in to WordPress.com and manage your self-hosted site from there. In both cases, you’ll need Jetpack installed and the Manage option activated.

Calypso’s features include:

  • A more intuitive interface, with less clutter (although the structure is essentially unchanged)
  • Much faster editing and publishing
  • Publish and edit posts and pages
  • Manage comments
  • Create and edit menus
  • Install themes and plugins
  • Edit site settings

The one thing you can’t do from the app is customize your theme. If you click on the Customize button you’ll be taken to the Customizer in your browser.

I have to admit, it feels a bit odd editing my site remotely but it’s no different from using the mobile WordPress apps in that regard, which many of us are used to.

The most significant improvement, however, is in speed. WordPress can be slow to implement changes made in the admin screens and the app makes this much quicker.

Calypso is very new and it’s safe to predict that it will go through significant review and UX improvements over the next year, as well as influencing other similar projects that make use of its open source codebase.

Calypso offers a single interface to manage all WordPress.com or Jetpack-enabled sites.
Calypso offers a single interface to manage all WordPress.com or Jetpack-enabled sites.

It Will be Easier to Publish to WordPress Using a Bespoke Interface

One of the big battles in the time that WordPress has been in existence has been between publicly available CMSes like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and other commercial systems; and bespoke CMSes designed specifically for a given project.

The debate has been steadily moving away from bespoke CMSes and many of us who do client work will have experiences of helping clients migrate to WordPress from a bespoke CMS. This might be because it no longer meets their needs or is no longer supported because the agency that built it for them is has either ceased trading or the client doesn’t want to work with them anymore.

The beauty of WordPress is that it has a huge community of users, a vast library of online support and learning resources (including this blog), and that it ain’t going anywhere. Site owners choosing WordPress will be less isolated than those using a bespoke CMS and have less risk of problems further down the line.

But there are still plenty of organizations (including corporations and news agencies) that choose to have a custom CMS built for them that meets their needs exactly. It means they can develop an interface that fits with their workflow and makes them more efficient.

This could change in the future. The Calypso interface is just that: an interface that interacts with WordPress using the REST API. There’s nothing to stop anyone from building their own bespoke interface, which would look nothing like WordPress but would interact with data stored by WordPress.

This opens up opportunities not only for agencies building CMSes for clients but also for website builders such as our own edublogs and the happy tables restaurant website builder, which use a customized version of the WordPress admin. The happy tables team are involved in the REST project and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it switched to a standalone interface using the REST API during 2016.

PHP Developers Will Have to Get Familiar with JavaScript

In Matt Mullenweg’s State of the Word address to WordCamp US on December 6 he made one thing very clear: the future is JavaScript:

“I believe quite strongly that JavaScript and API-driven interfaces are the future of not just WordPress but the web.”

As the possibilities offered by the REST API become more apparent, more WordPress developers will need to add JavaScript (specifically JSON) to their skill set.

This will enable them to create themes entirely built using front-end languages instead of PHP, with potentially significant performance gains.

To my mind, the REST API is a bit like quantum physics. As Richard Feynman famously said:

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Similarly:

“If you think you understand what the REST API means for WordPress, you don’t understand the REST API.”

In my view, we haven’t yet done much more than scratch the surface of how this new way of interacting with WordPress could change WordPress and how it’s used. So far people have been using it to develop themes built with frontend languages instead of PHP (see A Day of REST for an example) and a few mobile apps (showcased at WordCamp US). But it has much more potential than that. It means that just about any application could interact with WordPress in the future. From smartphone apps and admin interfaces to stock management systems and smart fridges, the possibilities are almost endless. Who knows, maybe a WordPress-powered app will help get human beings to Mars one day??

This means that developers working at the cutting edge of WordPress development, the people pushing the limits of what can be done with the platform, will need to learn a whole new skill-set in order to do it.

A New Community of Developers Will Start Working with WordPress

I’ve already predicted (as has Matt, I don’t claim credit here) that WordPress developers will need to become familiar with JavaScript. But there’s more to it than that: JavaScript and other front-end developers will come into the WordPress fold and start building applications that interact with the WordPress APIs. It’s those people, not constrained by experience of being in the WordPress bubble, who I believe will come up with the most innovative ways of using the REST API.

We'l be welcoming a new community of JavaScript developers.
We’l be welcoming a new community of JavaScript developers.

There are plenty of agencies now with separate teams of front-end and backend developers, and it’s normally the backend devs who are doing the bespoke WordPress work. This will change. As well as many of these backend devs starting to work with front-end languages more, front-end devs will be brought in to create applications and interfaces that interact with WordPress.

It’ll be more than just adding interactions and effects on top of the underlying PHP of a WordPress site: it’ll be interacting with WordPress in much more fundamental ways to create completely new types of site and application.

But these developers will have to develop some familiarity with PHP: as Matt said in his State of the Word address, PHP isn’t going anywhere. It will still be the language on which WordPress’s foundations – its APIs – are built.

This will all have an impact on the WordPress community…

The WordPress Community Will Have to Adapt

This year hasn’t been an easy year for WordPress in some respects, or at least it hasn’t always been easy for the community.

The #wpdrama episode over the summer stirred strong emotions on both sides of a debate that was about copyright as well as the power held by Matt Mullenweg and Automattic over other parts of the WordPress community and individuals within it. At the time it felt like something could be starting that would seriously damage the community in the long run, but then it all blew over and we’ve gone back to being the same merry band we always were, happily sharing ideas, experiences and code with each other.

But the influx of all these non-WordPress people, people who are drawn in by the new possibilities and the ability to use their skills with WordPress, will change the community to some extent.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the community’s ethos or essential nature will change, but it does mean that it will be made up of different people, some of whom won’t have the longstanding loyalty to (or stubborn adherence to, depending on how you see it) the way WordPress has done things for so many years.

There will be people coming in from enterprise backgrounds who find it difficult to adjust to the way open source communities work, and there will be existing members of the community who find it hard to get used to having front-end coders and app developers in their midst.

But I believe that the community is resilient and will adapt and grow with the new skills and outlooks from which it will be able to benefit. WordPress has already evolved from a blogging platform into a CMS, which brought significantly more people into the community, especially people doing client work. We’ve all gained from this and we can all benefit from the changes in store.

But It’s Not All About the REST API

However, not everything in store for WordPress in 2016 is related to the WordPress API. There are other changes and improvements in store which will expand WordPress’s audience and make it more accessible to users in different parts of the world, users with disabilities and people using different devices.

1. Translation

The biggest of these is the ongoing drive for translation. The polyglots team has been working hard to ensure that WordPress is translated into as many languages as possible and with each release this grows. Over 2016 the team will continuing to translate the biggest themes and plugins, making it easier for WordPress’s global community to interact with them. That can only be a good thing.

2. Accessibility

The accessibility of the admin interface is also improving, with over 200 accessibility-related tickets addressed in version 4.4. JavaScript-driven interfaces like Calypso will give developers more scope to create interfaces that work for users with sensory impairments, with the option to turn specific accessibility features on and off using JavaScript.

3. Responsive Images

WordPress is also firmly embracing the shift towards mobile web use with the adoption of true responsive images in release 4.4. This means that on small screens, not only will images look smaller in your WordPress site, they’ll actually be smaller. All without you lifting a finger. This is a great example of WordPress developers working hand in hand with the web standards community (who, let’s face it, were a little sniffy about WordPress a few years back) to make WordPress a modern platform.

4. The Customizer

The Customizer also isn’t going anywhere. For users this means more as-live editing of your site’s settings, widgets, menus and more, with the possibility of admin pages being replaced by their sections in the Customizer.

For theme developers this means you need to start incorporating the Customizer in your themes and replace existing theme options screens with customizer sections. This will be challenging for developers of some of the more complex themes, but is clearly where WordPress is going. There may also be possibilities to create bespoke versions of the Customizer using JavaScript-driven interfaces, which is great news for drag-and-drop theme builders.

Wrapping Up

Every year we like to look back on the previous year for WordPress and anticipate what’c coming in the next 12 months, but it feels different this year. I believe that WordPress is on the cusp of some huge changes, which will affect its codebase, its user base, its interface and its community. Exciting times!

What are your predictions for WordPress in 2016? Let us know in the comments below.