Saying Goodbye to Upfront, Focusing On What Our Members Want & Embracing Gutenberg, Divi, Beaver, WPBakery and more…

In what feels like a different life ago (but was in-fact just 2010) I started to think really really hard about the future of WordPress, user experience and web design. It was a process that culminated in 2015 with Upfront and one which ends today with very mixed emotions and a announcement that might surprise you.

So, join me for yet another James-reflects-on-screwing-up-and-sets-wpmudev-up-for-a-better-future-hopefully post™ :D Promise I’ll keep this one a little shorter though.

Mostly because this one’s about product, rather than me. Well, me messing up product, so kinda about me, but with fewer bad words and more learning (no hugs mind), anyway…

We had a good run at it…. this stuff was haaaard.

Web design (for the consumer) was/is broken

I’d like to argue that the ‘consumer’ (i.e. your regular Joanne without any development or design experience) is almost equally unable to customize the design of their website today as they were in 2010. Especially when it comes to WordPress.

Now, IMO this is down to a whole heap of reasons, not the least of which being the Geocities-effect (if there isn’t such a thing… there should be) whereby any non-designer given the capacity to actually design will inevitably make all the things as fugly as possible, as quickly as possible. I certainly do.

But perhaps, I reckon, mostly down to a combination of the complexity required of a standard website (hint: it’s much higher than you thought) and the tools available for achieving that (hint: they don’t let Joanne achieve the former). Plus the small matter that if anyone *does* crack the above, the net results are going to be the blandest of bland where every site looks the same minus slightly different high-def portrait images.

I won’t go into too much detail largely because there’s just too much of it, but howabout this for an example. What do your personal trainer friends Joanne and Joe want for their individual personal training websites? I’ll tell you now, it’s *completely different*.

So, how do you cater to them both? Well, uh, I guess you need a powerful but simple platform with a bunch of different templates they can choose from and functionality suiting their requirements that they can simply integrate (for example Joanne wants a members area, Joe wants to sell training courses). Easy huh? Erm, no. The vast majority of people still find it hard to format a Word document… how on earth do you think they are going to achieve this?!?!?!?!

Give it another decade or two along with a vast vast vast amount of investment and you miiiiight, just possibly, get some sort of AI/machine-learning system that actually works and which essentially becomes your automated web designer + developer. Although I’m pretty sceptical about this (especially given that it’ll be competing against a much higher aesthetic standard) and that, simply put, conceptually and practically, the tools simply are not there.

Until that time, you’ll be using WordPress.com for your blog, Shopify for your shop, Squarespace for your portfolio and any number of other platforms for your other specific needs.

Or, a web designer/developer who will do your custom requirements for you and make it look lovely to boot.

How safe is your lunch?

Which is to say that I was right about the future (although not its proximity) but wrong about the competition.

Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, Shopify etc. are quite certainly *not* going to come and eat our lunch… at least not yet, and probably never if they continue down their respective paths.

Being those which lead directly (or at least via your nearest Super Bowl ad) towards the consumer. The person who wants a website right now and for as little cash as possible, ideally for free. For the person who will be happy with the fundamentals offered (or persuaded to be so) and content with the limitations therein, because they are traded for convenience and cost.

But that doesn’t mean that WP is safe from competition, although it’s a kind of competition for healthiness and vitality, rather than a direct threat from an open source or hosted rival. Rather that it’s tied up very much in the challenge that any utterly dominant market leader faces – namely continuous improvement and innovation.

Such as in a concerted and directed effort towards a better design experience on both a content and theme basis. Such as Gutenberg.

WordPress is creating an all new editor called Gutenberg, it’s pretty awesome.

So Gutenberg is taking over?

Well, not really.

And this was my other biggest challenge, I am simply *not* experienced, talented or focused enough to be able to create the ultimate user, or even developer (now that we’ve gotten our regular users out of the way) themes package. I was stupid to think I ever would be. And I think it’s highly likely that if you think you can, you’re a dumb as me… hey, we should grab a beer :D

I was breaking my own maxim in terms of expertise; I’m not a designer, I wasn’t being employed by anyone to implement designs for websites and my experience in terms of creating them myself (which, as I pointed out, doesn’t really matter as they aren’t my audience, you are) was limited at best.

And there are all sorts of different types of you, there are command-line-junkies, there are shortcode-fanatics, there are these folk who follow Genesis like it’s some sort of religion (geddit? ahhh) there are the Divi-division, the Beaver-Builder-belt, the WPBakery-bunch (neé Visual-Composer-crew) and even the ithemes-indigenous (sorry about that last one). There are many, many ways to create a building, and for the strength, viability and innovation that is required for WP to succeed these are absolutely required and I have no doubt at all will only flourish.

BUT the platform itself (and not to mention wp.com, ahem!) needs a robust, powerful and well considered visual design tool – inspired by and working alongside all of the above (and the many I have missed and that will come after). It’s simply not enough to be a back-translates-to-front tool, and Joanne, quite rightly, is demanding a better content creation experience. So that’s a great place for the project to start from.

And from there… why shouldn’t WP have a robust visual content creator and then theme editor??? I think it should! But there’s no way, and in fact given the way that people innovate and the reasons for the curators of the project to keep it open and flourish (rather than close it up and perish), it’s going to be the only one.

Which is why…

From now on WPMU DEV <3s you all :)

Have a think about it… what’s our expertise? To abuse a much abused term, what’s our DNA? It’s in helping web developers create and manage client websites. Be it a 1-3 people web shop, a full blown agency or an internal role managing corporate or institutional (hello CampusPress!) sites.

And while all of you want all sorts of different things, most of all, I bet, you want us to focus all of our efforts on supporting you in what you choose, by providing robust, compatible products and services, alongside broad and expert support.

Heck, we’ve been actively supporting WooCommerce, Divi and many other themes tools for years as it is. So let’s make it official.

As of today we are now officially supporting and devoting our whole efforts to compatibility with as many as possible different WP Theme and design providers as we can and when it comes to Gutenberg, we are *all in*. As in, let’s make this happen and let’s focus on every one of our products and services guten perfect compatibility with the ‘berg :)

And so for Upfront… goodbyeeeeeeee

Yep, as I mentioned at the start, it’s with very mixed emotions that we part ways.

But, fundamentally, I think that we’re saying goodbye to a more naïve James, and hopefully giving us a more mature, well-rounded and well directed company as a result. Fundamentally, a better suite of products and services that cater better to our audience and expertise.

And, if you’ve really gotten stuck into Upfront, I can only apologise (see reasons above) and assure you that we’re not going to dump you in a bunch of trouble, it’s not like we’re turning off the switch today, in fact we’re going to continue supporting Upfront ongoing (after all, members get support for *anything* WordPress!) and making sure that all of the sites using it are secure and stable for the foreseeable future.

All the time, preparing it for a release on our GitHub account where you will be able to play, fork and fumble around with the beast that it is at your leisure.

During which time and ongoing afterwards, I can assure you we’ll be doubling down on all the things that actually matter to you, our members.

Talking of which… as well as letting me know what an idiot I am in the comments (although you’ll do better to outdo me, I reckon, lol), please do let us know what you’d like us to be doubling down on and also, now that we’re out of the theme game, making sure we’re beautifully compatible with.

James Farmer
Over to you! If you have any questions we'll be here. We're sad to see Upfront go...but excited about improving integrations with our partners.