What does the future hold for WordPress?

WordPress has been undergoing some pretty big changes lately. With the REST API promising to revolutionize WordPress development, and Gutenberg promising to do the same for the user interface, it’s not surprising if you find it all a lot to take in.

But what impact will these changes really have, and what do they mean for the future of WordPress and its community?

In this post I’m going to get out a crystal ball and make some predictions. I’ll look at what the big changes are, how they might impact on different parts of the WordPress community, and analyse whether this is a good or a bad thing.

So, let’s delve into the detail of what’s changing, before looking at the impact of those changes.

What’s Changing?

There have been two big changes in WordPress in the last couple of years, one of which has been around for a bit longer and the other is newer and still under development. These are the REST API and Project Gutenberg.

The REST API

the WordPress REST API website
the WordPress REST API website

 

The REST API will have little impact on users but could be a major deal for developers. It provides an API that you can use to tap into the content of your WordPress site from elsewhere, using Javascript. I’m not going to go into technical detail on how it works here, but if you want to know more, read our posts on the REST API.

The REST API was a hot topic two years ago when it was integrated into WordPress core. The expectation at that time was that it would turn WordPress from a content management system (CMS) into an application platform, and that thousands of applications would spring up using it as their core.

The truth has turned out to be somewhat less revolutionary. The community has gone pretty quiet on the subject of the REST API, you no longer see it on the agenda of every WordCamp, and I don’t know all that many developers working with it.

However there is one way in which it has changed WordPress, and that is by bringing a new community of front end developers on board. Previously there was some derision of WordPress by front end developers (I spoke about responsive WordPress development at a web standards conference some years ago and was all but booed off the stage). But the ability to hook into the REST API has made some developers outside the existing WordPress community sit up and take notice. This presents its own challenges and opportunities, particularly in the way it could change the community.

Project Gutenberg

The Gutenberg WordPress Plugin
The Gutenberg WordPress Plugin

 

On the face of it, Gutenberg couldn’t be more different from the REST API. It’s a change focused on the user experience and not on developers, and it promises to make the WordPress UI more user-friendly and help it compete in the increasingly crowded CMS marketplace.

However if you look more deeply, Gutenberg has more in common than you might think. It offers major challenges and opportunities for developers, given the scope to write code that interacts with Gutenberg’s blocks system. And it’s built on Javascript. So if you’ve written a plugin in PHP and want to update it for compatibility with Gutenberg, then it’s not going to be a simple task.

We’re still at the very early stages with Gutenberg. It’s currently only available as a plugin, although the plan is to integrate it into core this year. When that happens, there could be hundreds of plugins that don’t work anymore.

The Impact of These Changes

So what does all this mean?

Well, that will depend on who you are. The impact will be different for users and developers, and for those new to WordPress or who’ve been working with it for some time. Let’s take a look at the potential impact.

For Users

The REST API is unlikely to have any impact on users of WordPress itself. If a user does install a plugin that makes use of it, then they’re unlikely to notice the difference. However it could have a big impact on users of other applications and sites that use the REST API. In the future, we could see developers building web-based applications interacting with WordPress using REST, and that opens up the possibility for a whole new community of users making use of those. These could be people who’ve never used WordPress themselves.

For those users who’ve got Jetpack installed on their sites, or users of wordpress.com, the story is very different. The Calypso editing interface they’ll be using to update their site looks quite different from the WordPress admin screen self hosted users are used to, and they use Javascript and REST to create an application that can be used online or as a desktop app.

The Calypso Editing Interface Dashboard
The Calypso Editing Interface

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Calypso interface, or something like it, was eventually merged into core. This won’t happen quickly; if it was going to happen soon, it would have already. Instead, my prediction is that at some point in a year or so, we’ll see a new admin interface for self hosted sites that combines Calypso and Gutenberg.

Gutenberg certainly promises changes for users. They’ll have to get used to a new way of creating and editing posts, and some might not like it. Most, I imagine, will get used to it and come to prefer it once any teething problems have been ironed out. And then there will be new users who are attracted to WordPress because of the new, more user-friendly interface.

But at present I don’t think Gutenberg is enough to drive new users to WordPress in their droves. It’s not a big enough change, and it doesn’t fix the main UI issues which aren’t related to editing individual posts but to finding your way around the WordPress interface. Instead, I think that if and when Gutenberg and Calypso are merged to create a modern, Javascript driven interface for WordPress, then that will bring in new users in significant numbers.

For Developers

The future holds a lot of challenges for people like me who have been developing with WordPress for many years. The main challenge is the move away from PHP and towards Javascript.

I’ve spent years building my PHP skills, and I know I’ve still got more to learn. But my Javascript skills are very basic right now. I believe that in the future, that will need to change if I want to continue developing with WordPress.

For now, even given the REST API and Gutenberg changes, you can continue developing in PHP. Themes are still built using them, and most plugins. But more and more plugins are incorporating significant proportions of Javascript, and this will increase when Gutenberg is rolled into core. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point, more and more themes start to be developed using Javascript, instead of the small minority of experimental ones right now.

This will be forced if WordPress core itself evolves to include more Javascript and less PHP, something which I think Gutenberg makes inevitable.

So the reality is: if you want to stay ahead of the competition, you’ll need to start working in Javascript and not just PHP. A scary thought for someone like me at the foot of that learning curve!

For developers coming into WordPress, this is less of an issue. I expect that the majority of developers coming to WordPress will be doing so because they see opportunities to use the front end languages they already know. After all, if you’re a PHP developer and you’re not already working with WordPress, where have you been for the last fifteen years?

This means there will be more pressure within the community to focus on Javascript which will lead to more Javascript in core, which will in turn drive more front end developers to work with WordPress, creating a self-reinforcing cycle. In five years time, we could be seeing a bunch of new people leading on WordPress releases and speaking at WordCamps, and they won’t be PHP developers.

For the Community

All this change is bound to have some impact on the WordPress community. With new users being attracted by shiny new interfaces, and new developers being attracted by the opportunity to do more front end work, the community is bound to grow.

This is a good thing. The WordPress community is a constantly evolving and growing entity and we all get better at what we do by welcoming new people and learning from them.

However it does present its challenges. WordPress is an open source platform built on a language that has never been sexy. While we have people in the community who are well known and respected, you don’t see the kind of ‘us and them’ mentality that I’ve witnessed at front end conferences, where the speakers are treated like minor celebrities (and are paid speaking fees to match). And we are all committed to sharing our code, our expertise and our ideas. For me, that is what makes WordPress what it is: it’s much more than just a codebase or a CMS.

people using laptops at a WordCamp
WordCamps are where our community come together

Front end developers joining the community may have come from a very different background. Many will never have worked on open source projects and may find it difficult to be as transparent as the community expects. That could cause tension within the community and make new people reluctant to get involved.

The onus is on those of us already active in the WordPress community to be evangelical about our values and ensure that new members can understand them and see their benefits. The evidence is very clear that an open source ethos does not lead to a commercial disadvantage, and it’s up to us to communicate that message.

I have faith in the community and the industry as a whole and believe we will overcome these challenges. I believe that the WordPress community will continue to be driven by the open source ethos and that it will be inclusive and welcoming. But we will all have to work together to ensure this.

The Times They Are A’changing

WordPress never stands still. From its inception as a blogging platform, to its evolution as the world’s biggest CMS, it’s always been getting  bigger and better.

The current changes could be the biggest yet. I think they make things exciting, and that we can work to overcome any challenges. Only time will tell how much of what I’m predicting will come true.

Rachel McCollin
How do you think the changes to WordPress will affect you? Let us know in the comments!