The range of uses WordPress can be put to makes it easy to forget the software’s humble roots as a fork of an obscure blogging solution.
As WordPress has expanded into ever more of an all-purpose online solution, a new breed of offerings has emerged that make blogging their primary point of concern.
With roots in the WordPress community and a highly successful Kickstarter campaign behind it, Ghost is one of the most interesting of those options.
In this article we’ll explore the background to Ghost’s creation, take its latest version for a test drive and consider what lessons WordPress stands to learn from this relatively new arrival in the online publishing space.
Let’s start with how the platform came to be.
The Background and Birth of Ghost
The idea for Ghost first appeared as a post on developer John O’Nolan’s blog back in November of 2012.
His overall argument was straightforward: WordPress has evolved into a complex and at times bewilderingly general purpose CMS, whereas all many users want is “just a blogging platform.”
“WordPress is so much more than just a blogging platform.”
O’Nolan outlined his vision for a new publishing tool called Ghost that would be a fork of WordPress seeking to provide a number of key features:
- An intuitive dashboard open to third-party plugins
- Better post management with a simple, email-like interface
- An improved writing and editing environment
- No native commenting support
- A more structured approach to backwards compatibility
Reaction to the post was extremely positive, with one of the factors lending real weight to the proposal being O’Nolan’s own background.
As the Deputy Head of the WordPress UI Group from 2009 to 2011, O’Nolan played a major role in putting together the existing WordPress interface. He also had over a decade of development experience under his belt across an impressive roster of top-tier corporate clients including Microsoft, Nokia and Easyjet.
Support for the Kickstarter campaign was immediate and intense.
Ghost blew past its £25,000 funding target in less than twelve hours and went on to raise a staggering £196,362 from more than 5,000 backers across the world. The project also started to garner praise from major publications such as Forbes, Wired and The Guardian.
A mere five months on from the successful conclusion of that initial funding round, the first public release of the software was announced in September of 2013: Ghost 0.3 – Kerouac.
Ghost also announced a hosted version of the software, known as Ghost(Pro), with pricing ranging from $8 per month for a single blog up to $200 per month for business packages.
Let’s move on to how you can take a look at Ghost for yourself.
The easiest way of taking Ghost for a spin – and the one we’ll be using here – is to create a demo Ghost (Pro) account.
You get 14 days to explore the functionality on offer and you don’t need to enter any credit card details. The signup process is incredibly straightforward and should take no more than a couple of minutes.
The sticking point for less tech savvy users is likely to come with installing Node on your target machine rather than any inherent complexities in Ghost’s setup. Luckily, Bitnami has created one-click installs to take the heavy lifting out of the process across a variety of platforms.
It’s worth pointing out a further option of particular relevance to WordPress users at this stage – the Export to Ghost plugin. This gives you a simple way of quickly migrating WordPress content into Ghost if you’re looking to make a direct comparison between the platforms using existing material.
Considering the relatively short time period Ghost has existed for, the options available for installation and demoing are impressive and compare favorably with WordPress. The developers have obviously put some serious work into making your start with the platform as straightforward as possible.
Now that we know how to get Ghost, let’s move on to actually using it.
The two most heavily touted parts of Ghost’s proposed feature set were its ambitions to re-imagine the post editing experience and provide a new take on dashboard instrumentation. Plugin and theming support were also promised from the outset.
Let’s look at how those elements made it into the real world. We’ll begin with the dashboard.
Upon logging into the backend, you’re presented with a pleasantly modern, stripped-down interface and an invitation to create your first post.
What you’re conspicuously not presented with, however, is anything resembling the slick looking dashboard feature that was pushed as one of Ghost’s key differentiators.
As John O’Nolan recently confirmed, the initial dashboard plan – including integration with third-party services – has been shelved. Ghost will instead be concentrating on improving post analytics in the existing dashboard.
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This could be seen as something of a climbdown, but the candour shown in admitting defeat on this point is admirable. The suggestion of using a dedicated product costing a minimum of $49 per month as a replacement may not be to everyone’s liking, but does at least provide an alternative solution.
The Post Editor
A pre-formatted “Welcome to Ghost” article highlights Ghost’s clean take on post management and serves as a solid introduction to the options at your disposal in the editing interface itself.
The split-screen post editor is a pleasure to use with its slick, Markdown-powered interface providing an instant preview of your work in progress. It’s a refreshing change from the constant context switching often associated with the editor in WordPress.
A number of carefully considered extra UI touches, such as the ability to leave descriptive placeholders for image upload, also contribute substantially to overall ease of use and would be a welcome addition to WordPress.
A quick visit to the marketplace shows that Ghost has certainly succeeded in capturing the attention of the theming community.
Where it’s fallen down to date is on plugin implementation, or apps, as they are referred to in Ghost. The first iteration of app functionality is scheduled for delivery this year
A Comparison with WordPress
If you’re an experienced WordPress user, it’s easy to forget just how much accumulated knowledge about the platform you’re carrying around in your head. Much of this is used on a daily level to navigate its increasingly complex interface. New users are, of course, not so lucky.
A notable feature of Ghost when using it for the first time is just how streamlined and simple the process of content creation is. You really feel like you’re free to simply sit down and write.
It’s a real contrast with the standard experience of using WordPress these days, which can often feel more like trying to land an airplane than a calm writing environment.
Lessons for WordPress from Ghost
One of the interesting things about assessing new publishing platforms is the perspective it gives you on WordPress itself. While Ghost won’t be usurping WordPress’ dominant market position any time soon, the story of its creation and continued growth offers a number of lessons for the older platform to reflect on.
1. Users Demand Simplicity
From Apple to Uber, one clear trend is emerging across the technological landscape: The rise in power and performance of both hardware and software is matched only by users’ desire for simplicity.
Very few people enjoy fumbling through endless admin screens to accomplish basic tasks. Stuff should just work.
The initial wave of enthusiasm Ghost’s stripped down approach generated shows that this is a trend WordPress ignores at its peril.
2. Never Forget Where You Came from
With the imminent integration of the WP REST API, WordPress is on the verge of making a play for a much wider slice of the web than the one it currently dominates.
These are exciting times for the platform as a whole, but it would be foolish to ignore the needs of the core blogging audience who have driven so much of the software’s success to date.
Back in 2003, blogging was a niche pursuit. Thanks in no small part to WordPress itself, that’s no longer the case. How the platform juggles expanding its reach while continuing to serve the interests of a key slice of its user base is a question worth reflecting on.
3. Dashboard Instrumentation is a Business Opportunity
A big part of Ghost’s early appeal lay in the tantalising mockups of a slick, configurable dashboard capable of integrating with third-party services.
The upcoming REST API could be the route to WordPress making some significant moves in that area.
4. Writing Environments Matter
Regardless of theme or topic, users of online publishing platforms end up spending most of their time in the editing environment.
5. PHP Isn’t the Only Game in Town
While WordPress – in common with other online giants such as Facebook – has stayed true to its PHP roots, it will increasingly have to integrate with the outside world and pay close attention to developments outside its own ecosystem. The REST API will again be critical here.
Should You Use Ghost?
As O’Nolan’s candid review of the first two years of Ghost’s existence makes clear, it’s a product still very much in its infancy. That said, it’s still likely to appeal to two distinct classes of users at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of technological savviness:
- Bloggers: If you’re just looking for an easy way of posting content online, the Ghost(Pro) package is a seriously attractive option. You can be up and running within minutes and sharing your writing with the world for a reasonable monthly fee.
- Developers: Users with an interest in the underlying technologies of Node.js and Express.js are also likely to be tempted by the fresh start the platform offers and its prospects for future growth. It will be particularly interesting to see what direction the app functionality goes in when it finally arrives.
To sum up, if you’re concerned exclusively with blogging, Ghost is an interesting option to explore. If you’re looking for a CMS to build a business around, WordPress is still clearly the go-to solution.
The arrival of Ghost could be looked at as a net win for WordPress.
Ithas sparked healthy discussion and debate over the direction WordPress’ own interface should be going and provides several UI innovations to take inspiration from.
It’s also provided serious food for thought with the wider issues it raises about where WordPress should be heading as a platform and how best to get there.
Have you used Ghost, or switched any of your sites to this blogging platform? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.