The History of WordPress: A Look Back at the World’s Favorite CMS
As WordPress moves towards the mid-point of its second decade of existence, it’s tempting to see 2015 as marking something of an inflection point for the platform.
Its position as the world’s most popular CMS has long since been established and it’s now powering around a quarter of the world’s websites.
With the REST API en route, Matt Mullenweg openly targeting 50% market share as a goal and with Automattic starting to flex their economic muscles, there is a sense that the WordPress juggernaut – on both the open source and commercial side of the fence – is starting to pick up steam in a way that is fundamentally different to what has come before.In this
In this article, we’ll look back at the major events that led to WordPress becoming the world’s favorite CMS and close with some thoughts on what lies ahead.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
2003–2004: A New Platform is Born
The market dominance of WordPress is so complete these days that many users may be blissfully unaware of its roots as the fork of a pretty obscure PHP blogging platform.
B2 Cafelog was originally developed by Michael Valdrighi in 2001, but by 2003 active development had seemingly been abandoned.
A post from Matt Mullenweg bemoaning the lack of progress on the tool led Mike Little to propose teaming up to take things forward, and the end result was a fork of B2 called WordPress which was launched onto an unsuspecting world in May of 2003.
The official 1.0 version followed relatively closely thereafter in January 2004, with many of the features WordPress users have long since taken for granted, such as straightforward installation, comment moderation, search engine friendly permalinks and categories.
An early win for the nascent platform came mid-way through 2004. Poorly received changes to Moveable Type’s licensing and pricing structure gave WordPress a huge boost as disaffected bloggers went looking for an alternative, open source solution.
Looking back at those first eighteen months, it’s fair to say that WordPress came out of the blocks with something of a bang. The big leaps, however, were just around the corner.
2005–2007: Giant Steps
2005 was a landmark year for WordPress in several key respects. One of the most far-reaching of those was the creation of Automattic as a separate commercial entity in August 2005 and the official launch of WordPress.com.
Matt Mullenweg had the vision early on to see that the GPL license was capable of supporting both an active open source project and a completely distinct commercial entity that could leverage its power.
Ten years down the line, with an entire industry having grown up around WordPress in the interim, this feels like a natural state of affairs but it’s easy to forget what a radical step – and commercial gamble – this represented at the time.
An initial funding round of $1.5 million put Automattic on a financially solid footing early on, and their commitment to supporting the development of WordPress as an open source platform was quickly shown with their involvement in a number of high-profile releases.
WordPress 1.5 (Strayhorn) was a particularly noteworthy version, as it brought theming functionality and static pages to the table.
The separation of design and functionality that theming ushered in – highlighted in the inaugural default theme Kubrick – was a key factor in driving uptake among developers and designers worldwide, and opened the door for future monetization efforts.
Version 2.0 (Duke) at the close of December 2005 kept the ball rolling with the addition of persistent caching, user roles and a significant overhaul of the backend UI.
2005 also saw the launch of anti-comment spam plugin Akismet – subsequently spun off into its own standalone service – and initial work on Multisite precursor WordPressMU by Automattic’s first hire Donncha O’Caoimh.
In contrast to the fairly extraordinary amount of activity in 2005, the next two years were largely ones of consolidation and slow iterative improvement on both the commercial and open source sides of the platform.
Notable additions in terms of functionality during that period included tagging, widgets, pretty URLs, spell checking, assorted speed improvements and update notifications.
The WordPress Plugin Directory also established itself as the official go-to repository for plugins during this time.
In terms of outreach, 2006 was also notable for the first ever WordCamp in San Francisco – the beginning of a series of events that continue to galvanize the community worldwide to this day.
As 2007 came to a close, there was no longer any doubt that WordPress had emerged as a significant online presence, but could it continue its upwards trajectory?
2008–2009: The Training Wheels Come Off
The initial admin overhaul was met with mixed reviews, leading to some soul-searching in the form of a usability testing report code-named Crazyhorse. This eventually morphed into the more considered backend changes that were such a feature of WordPress 2.7 (Coltrane).
The functionality kept on coming throughout this period with features such as the Shortcode API, post revisions, built-in plugin installations, and sticky posts all making their debut.
This period also saw the continued growth of the Plugin Directory and the official launch of the Theme Directory – a huge step forward in terms of quality standards and design focus for the platform.
Automattic was also busy throughout this time, having secured a Series B funding round of $29.5 million from a heavyweight group of investors including the New York Times and Polaris. A small chunk of that change was quickly spent on acquiring the WordPressMU-based social network BuddyPress.
2010–2011: Growing Up in Public
2010 to 2012 saw a number of landmark events for WordPress as a piece of software, a platform and an idea.
The WordPress Foundation was officially set up as a charitable organization by Matt Mullenweg in 2010, with the aim of securing WordPress’ long-term future as an independent open source software project:
The point of the foundation is to ensure free access, in perpetuity, to the software projects we support. People and businesses may come and go, so it is important to ensure that the source code for these projects will survive beyond the current contributor base, that we may create a stable platform for web publishing for generations to come.
As part of this process, the foundation officially acquired the rights to the WordPress logo and trademark.
For obvious reasons, the lines between Automattic and WordPress continue to be slightly hazy at times to this day, but the establishing of the WordPress Foundation and assignment of rights went a long way towards formalizing the division between the two at a key time for the platform.
2010 also saw the arrival of a major version in WordPress 3.0 (Thelonius).
The inclusion of custom post types in this release represented another large step on the road to WordPress becoming a truly multi-purpose CMS, and the integration of WordPressMU into core under the guise of Multisite brought a whole new level of power and flexibility to site owners.
Version 3.0 also marked the beginning of a re-organization period for the software project behind the scenes, with a renewed focus on non-core related areas such as the Codex, theme directory and other areas of the overall WordPress experience.
Microsoft’s 2010 migration of its thirty million Windows Live Spaces users to WordPress.com represented a major coup for the platform as a whole, and by the end of the year WordPress had soared up to 14.7% of overall market share.
2011 also witnessed the first official WordPress user and developer survey, which showcased the increasing viability of the platform as a means of generating serious revenue for businesses worldwide.
2012–2014: An Increasingly Mature Platform
The next couple of years saw WordPress consolidating its position as the world’s leading CMS platform.
A slew of additional functionality emerged throughout this period, including the new media manager and audio and video support.
Efforts to improve the backend user experience continued with ongoing improvements to the theme customizer, the introduction of Distraction Free Writing mode and a major responsive reboot of the admin interface in WordPress 3.8 (Parker).
Under the hood, WordPress 3.9 (Smith) saw some major improvements on the automatic version update front and the introduction of compatibility with Facebook’s HipHop Virtual Machine – a shift that put WordPress firmly at the cutting edge of PHP development.
Big moves were afoot on the Automattic side of things as well, with Matt Mullenweg stepping up as CEO in 2014 as the company raised a cool $160 million in funding to put its valuation at a staggering $1.16 billion dollars.
Automattic also acquired Longreads in 2014, a move that perhaps signals interest in a longer term content play by the company.
This period also saw WordPress consolidate its position as the world’s most popular CMS, leaving rival contenders trailing in the dust as WordPress soared to 23% of market share.
2015: Making Its Move
As with ten years before, 2015 has all the makings of a landmark year for WordPress.
The platform is on the verge of integrating the REST API into core, a move that opens it up to a wider programmatic world and that could see it transform into a fully-fledged application framework.
In an interview with Adam Silver on the KitchensinkWP podcast, Mullenweg outlined the scope of his ambitions and explicitly targeted overall market dominance as a future goal:
The next goal is the majority of websites. We want to get to 50%+ and there’s a lot of work between now and then. As the percentage increases, it gets harder and harder to grow the market share, and we have to grow the market share by doing things we haven’t done in the past – really thinking about the onboarding process, really thinking about the integration with social networks, and with how WordPress works on touch devices, which is going to be the predominant computing platform of the future. These things are going to be really important.
All in all, it’s been a pretty staggering twelve years for WordPress.
From humble beginnings as the blogging solution a pair of young developers built to scratch their own itch, the software has grown to be the most popular CMS software on earth.
WordPress.org is one of the world’s most successful open source projects – a global platform that hundreds of thousands of business owners, developers and designers have staked their future on and that supports an economy all of its own.
Meanwhile, Automattic has emerged as a lean billion dollar company with a headcount that remains staggeringly low by industry standards.
With an open road ahead of it and the best years still very much to come, the future is looking bright for WordPress on all fronts.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the platform’s development to date and where you think it’s heading in the comments below.