WordPress Turns 15: A Look Back at Its Greatest Hits

If you can believe it, WordPress is about to turn 15! Where has the time gone?

I wish I could say it seems like only yesterday when people were building websites and blogs with the likes of GeoCities, Blogger, and, of course, b2/cafelog… but it doesn’t feel that way. A lot has changed since the world was introduced to WordPress in 2003 and it’s kind of hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have access to this game-changing open source software.

Before the big WordPress birthday/anniversary/celebration arrives (#wp15), I want to take a moment to revisit WordPress’s greatest hits. There have been so many of them over the years that it would be a shame not to look back at WordPress’s origins, our introduction to the first plugins, or when Multisite first made an appearance (among many other highlights).

WordPress Turns 15: A Retrospective

In order to properly tell WordPress’s story, we’re first going to have to skip back to 2001 where it all started.

2001: The Concept Is Formed

In 2001, French developer Michel Valdrighi launched b2/cafelog. It was a blogging software inspired by Blogger; however, he built it using PHP and a MySQL database. At the time, this was a brand new approach to developing content for the web, and so it caught the attention of folks who were interested in a more efficient way to do so going forward.

One of those people was Matt Mullenweg who, at the time, was a student at the University of Houston and also a user of the b2/cafelog platform.

2002: The Developer Disappears

One of the things the WordPress community stresses a lot is the importance of vetting WordPress themes and plugins before installing them on your site. One of the ways in which web developers can do this is to peek behind the scenes and see what’s going on with the developer. Who is he or she? Can they be trusted to have developed a solid piece of software? Do they regularly keep it updated?

In 2002, Mullenweg (and thousands of other users) experienced that same concern when Valdrighi stopped supporting b2/cafelog so that he could attend to more pressing personal matters.

While the situation wasn’t ideal, Mullenweg took the initiative to do something about it. He saw the value in b2/cafelog and decided to build something even more powerful from it. As the WordPress Codex explains:

“WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.”

2003: WordPress Launches (and So Much More)

May 27, 2003: this is the date when WordPress officially launched.

Basically, what happened was this:

  • Valdrighi disappeared and stopped supporting b2/cafelog in December of 2002.
  • Mullenweg posted a note to his blog, stating an interest in forking b2/cafelog.
  • As the software had a GNU general public license, he was free to take this on without permission from Valdrighi.
  • British developer Mike Little caught wind of Mullenweg’s post and reached out to him, offering his assistance in creating the fork.
  • Christine Selleck Tremoulet, one of Mullenweg’s friends, was the one responsible for giving WordPress its name.

Five months later, on May 27, the forked project was completed and officially launched.

There was a lot that happened as that year wore on. A number of developers signed on and brought some major advancements with them in the process.

  • Alex King was a web designer and developer who had been unofficially involved in the project since the b2/cafelog days. Once signed on to WordPress, he helped manage the plugin directory and was influential in the creation of themes as well.
  • Dougal Campbell is a web developer who still contributes to the WordPress platform. The start of his WordPress career saw him bring major performance improvements to RSS functionality.
  • Ryan Boren is a former web developer for WordPress. He is most notably associated with the contributions he made that led to the creation of plugins.

Despite tackling the b2/cafelog fork, the launch of WordPress, and the creation of a team of contributing developers, Mullenweg also found time that year to undertake The Great Renaming. You know how all our files now contain the “wp-” prefix? Well, we got those during this shift when he converted all “b2”-labeled files to the current naming system.

As you can imagine, it caused problems for developers who had already built “hacks” (basically, plugins) into their WordPress sites. That said, it’s now been 15 years and we still have the “wp-” naming convention going strong, which is a testament to the strength and stability of the platform.

At the end of the year, Mullenweg made one last big push to finish 2003 out strong. As you’re well aware, any good piece of software should come with a thorough set of documentation. With developers clamoring for support and chock full of questions for the WordPress team of developers, he developed the WordPress Wiki. Today, you know this as the WordPress Codex.

WordPress Codex

2004: Plugins Arrive!

It’s funny. There were a number of noteworthy changes that came to WordPress with the release of version 1.2 “Mingus” in 2004… and, yet, all I want to focus on is the fact that we got WordPress plugins for the first time.

The announcement was such a simple one within the version release:

“New plugin architecture: The new plugin architecture simplifies modifying or extending WordPress’ features. Plugins can now hook into nearly every action WordPress does.”

With so many other updates released at the same time to improve blogging functionality, comment moderation, and RSS feed performance, I wonder if the WordPress team had any idea how big of a deal the plugin would end up being for all of us.

2005: WPMU DEV Is Founded (and Other Cool Stuff, Too)

I know, I know… This post is supposed to be a celebration of WordPress and all the awesomeness it has brought to our lives. But, without WordPress, James Farmer, the CEO and founder of Incsub, might never have had a reason to bring WPMU DEV into existence.

And, so, 2005 is when WPMU DEV launched.

Now, back to WordPress:

After the WordPress plugin was introduced, we began to see a mix of update types coming out with each release. No longer was it solely for the purposes of amplifying blog functionality. We were seeing things like:

  • The creation of Pages.
  • A new, faster WordPress UI created with JavaScript and DHTML.
  • Built-in object caching.
  • The introduction of WYSIWYG editing.
  • User roles revamped.
  • Posts to be previewed before publishing.
  • Akismet created.
  • The first backup plugin was also created (that one no longer exists though).

2005 was also when we got a new WordPress theme system. Again, it’s kind of funny to see themes being talked about in such a simplistic manner and referred to as “templates” when they have become so much more to us now.

Annnnnd one more thing: this is the year that Matt Mullenweg founded Automattic. In just the first year, the company raised over a million dollars in series A funding.

2006: Growth of the WordPress Brand

Automattic first registered the trademark for WordPress and its logo in 2006. Although it was still a small startup, Mullenweg had the foresight to protect his assets as WordPress moved into a new era.

And as he solidified his hold over the brand, the WordPress community began to spring up all around him. The first WordCamp was hosted in San Francisco of that year. It took place over the course of a single day and over 500 people attended the event.

2007: More Updates, More Acquisitions, and… the First Major Security Attack

Widgets, autosaves, spellcheck… WordPress continued to churn out new versions containing more ways for blogging to become easier for its users.

In the meantime, Automattic purchased the Gravatar service; one that still seamlessly integrates with WordPress and allows users to leave a personal mark as they engage with content built on the platform.

All positive news aside, it’s important to address WordPress’s first major brush with a security breach. It happened at the start of the year when a number of SEO blogs (both high and low profile) claimed to have been attacked. It later was discovered that the vulnerability was located on one of WordPress’s web servers. When the 2.1.1 version was released, the aforementioned websites were exposed to the backdoor injection.

Of course, the WordPress team quickly repaired the vulnerability as soon as it was detected. This just goes to show you that WordPress has had a big target on its back even since the early days.

2008: Another Revamped Interface and Automatic Updates

2008 was a good year for streamlined workflows in WordPress.

Specifically, Coltrane, brought us both the plugin installer and the WordPress automatic upgrader right from within the WordPress admin. This meant that users no longer had to manually install plugins or download new versions of WordPress. It could all be done with a single click.

Other updates were made to the WordPress dashboard to improve not only the look of the interface, but also the usability. The most important one was, perhaps, the shift of the menu from the top of the dashboard to the sidebar (where it now sits).

Two events worthy of note from 2008 involve further advancements in WordPress’s growing notoriety:

InfoWorld Award

2009: A Growing Focus on Themes and Plugins

In the first major release of 2009, Baker introduced the built-in WordPress theme installer. Once the WordPress team saw how well-received the plugin installer was in 2008, it only made sense to bring themes into the dashboard to further streamline web development workflows.

In addition, the widgets interface was redesigned and the CodePress editor was introduced so that developers could more adeptly edit theme and plugin code within WordPress.

The Carmen release brought some exciting new developments as well. Including:

  • Batch plugin updates
  • WordPress image editing
  • Video embeds without shortcodes or source HTML
  • rel=canonical support for SEO
  • Post thumbnails integrated into WordPress themes

WordPress won another award this year, this time it was the Open Source CMS Award for “Overall Best Open Source CMS” .

2010: The WordPress Foundation Is Created

WordPress 3.0 Thelonious was a big release. Not necessarily because of how many updates or new functionalities it gave the WordPress community. Nope, it’s because this is when we got Multisite.

2010 was also a big year for WordPress (and Automattic) as Mullenweg opened the WordPress Foundation and transferred ownership of the WordPress trademark and property to it. As the WordPress Foundation website explains:

“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.”

2011: WordPress Gets Even Faster, Lighter, and More User-Friendly

With WordPress’s stamp on the web development and content-creating world, and its future secured by the WordPress Foundation, 2011 was a year to focus on making the WordPress experience even better for its users.

With three major releases over the course of the year, users saw a lot of much-needed upgrades:

  • Reinhardt introduced the admin bar, a streamlined writing interface, and enhanced linking.
  • Gershwin gave us distraction-free writing mode, improved comment moderation, and more efficient handling of WordPress updates.
  • Sonny brought with it the drag-and-drop media uploader, tooltip intros to new features, and hover menus in the WordPress navigation.

It was clear the WordPress team really wanted to spend that year giving users everything they needed to work more efficiently in WordPress.

2012: Further Friction Reduction

Two new updates came out in 2012. Each brought with them updates to the way in which users work, for the better.

With Green, the most important update users got was the introduction of the theme customizer and real-time previewer. This now gave users the ability to customize and test out new settings for their themes before ever having to push them to the live site.

Elvin focused on fixing the problems users experienced when working with media in WordPress.

2013: Security, Updates, and a New Look

It’s funny looking over the kinds of updates that came with each release now.

When you think about what was happening in 2013, it makes complete sense that the first release of the year would have put such a heavy focus on audio and video support and integration. They were definitely preparing WordPress for the increased adoption of streaming media content.

Then came Basie a little later. This is the update that gave us a sense that WordPress was ready to take security much more seriously. Automatic security updates were announced as was the strong password recommendation system.

Parker was the last update of the year and it gave us a new interface:

Look familiar?

One more thing to mention while we’re still in 2013, Automattic received a little over $126 million in two new rounds of funding.

2014: Further Refining of the Content Creation Process

WordPress developers were clearly hard at work throughout 2014. A few new versions came out, each with further enhancements to the content creation process.

Smith added:

  • Updates to the visual editor
  • Drag-and-drop images into the editor
  • Image editing within posts
  • Gallery previews
  • The ability to create audio and video playlists
  • Widget and header previews in the customizer

Benny added:

  • A grid-style view and management panel for media
  • Visible embeds within the visual editor
  • An expandable editor
  • Easier search and more metrics available in the plugin directory

Also of note, Automattic received its last round of funding in 2014. This time it was $160 million in series C funding, bringing the total amount raised to over $317 million. This has enabled Automattic to invest in and acquire a number of web properties over the years to bolster its offering.

2015-2017: Keeping up with the Times

The last few years have been mostly quiet. Yes, we’ve received a whole bunch of updates, but, at this point, WordPress is a well-oiled machine. Aside from the introduction of Gutenberg, there really haven’t been too many shakeups. Most of what we see now centers around refining features that were already working well within WordPress.

Here is a quick rundown of the hodgepodge of updates WordPress has released between 2015 and 2017:

Powell improved character support, gave us the ability to switch themes in the Customizer (even if they weren’t installed), embed more kinds of content, and also made bulk plugin updates easier.

Billie added Menu customization to the theme customizer tool. It also gave us favicons, stronger password generation techniques, and comments were removed from pages.

Clifford tackled the issue of responsive images (by making them the default setting in WordPress) while also integrating the REST API into the core.

Coleman added live responsive previews to the theme customizer, enabled themes to include custom user logos, as well as smart image resizing.

Pepper gave us some improvements to the editor, but it looks like the bulk of the work was done on making things faster and easier for developers behind the scenes.

The biggest focus for Vaughan was the improved visibility and functionality within the customizer tool. Video background functionality was added, easier menu builds, and more were included with this release.

Evans was all about the widgets. Image widgets. Video widgets. Audio widgets. And rich text widgets.

Tipton gave web developers an even more streamlined WordPress workflow. For starters, all that drafting and scheduling stuff you could do with posts could now be done with a website’s design changes. There were also new ways to allow for collaboration within WordPress while also safeguarding any changes made to your work.

2017: A Quick Note About Security

Sucuri was the first to discover a content injection vulnerability within the WordPress REST API in 2017 . In essence, it gave anyone the ability to change post or page content even if they hadn’t been given express access to do so.

Sucuri reported the issue to the WordPress team as soon as it was discovered and the team worked quickly to issue a patch for it.

I guess the point in mentioning this is to show just how dedicated WordPress and the surrounding WordPress community are to keeping this platform well-guarded. We understand that WordPress is not immune to security breaches, but we also know that there’s an amazingly talented team ready to address any issues or concerns as soon as they arise. And that’s a big part of why we’ve stuck with WordPress for 15 years and counting.

2018 & Beyond: TBD

After all that, it’s really great to see that WordPress is still free, still open source, and still the most popular CMS of choice. It’s definitely been through a lot of change over the years and I for one am really looking forward to seeing what the next 15 years of WordPress web development hold for us!

Brenda Barron
Over to you: How will you be celebrating the 15th birthday/anniversary of WordPress on May 27? Don't forget to use #wp15 so we can celebrate together!