WordPress In 2014, Predictions and Frictions

January is always a good time to think forward and I thought I’d put down some thoughts around where I think the WordPress’s products space might be headed. What makes my particular take interesting? Well, I’ve think I’ve started to pick up on a few things that haven’t been talked about too much.

Mobile

It would be hard to start projecting 2014 without first addressing the elephant in the room:

mobile has become so big that you can no longer avoid it.

If your site is not performing well for your mobile users, you really have to address that this year. Frankly, the typical WordPress site stinks in terms of performance. Even sites that are using themes that are advertised as ‘mobile ready’ and ‘responsive’ deliver poor user experience. So why is that and can we expect better this year?

The problem that the surge of mobile devices has brought to the table is the sheer complexity and difficulty of delivering good site experiences across all platforms and machines.

It’s hard.

Really hard.

There are many unsolved and perhaps unsolvable parameters involved in designing for the web. Say the words ‘responsive images’, ‘bandwidth/network performance’ and ‘typography’ and watch web developers heads crumble. There are no elegant solutions for these pain points because there are no elegant means to predict what kind of software is being used to display a site, what the capabilities are (like detecting touch), what kind of connection a user has (dial-up, mobile data plan, wifi, whatever it is, it can make a world of difference), or how poorly that neat font is going to render. There are ways and tools, but none of them are definitive, particularly clean or full proof.

In other words, it’s a mess. But we have to live with it. And do the best we can.

So having said that, I do think we’re going to see far more attention paid to performance on mobile. But I also think the typical site is going to continue to be a pretty poor experience on mobile devices. That’s not all bad, because you can really stand out if you really hit the nail on the head and deliver for your users. The main obstacle that faces clients is one of perception. There is this notion out there that WordPress can do all of this great stuff (true of course). But the notion extends to this idea that you just have to load up some responsive theme that has a few media queries and now you are done.

So here’s a reality check some clients will need to hear

If you need a strong presence on mobile, don’t expect that a turn key solution is going to do the job for you. Expect to spend a lot of time thinking through your mobile web presence. If you are making your existing site more mobile friendly, you will have to think hard on how to do that. There are no hard and fast rules to rely on. In many cases, you can’t expect to just shuffle around some boxes. To do it right requires a well thought out plan. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your mobile users and think about how they want to consume and interface with your site in that setting.

But there’s an upside to that too. Because it means putting your imagination in the brains of your audience and only good things can come from better understanding your audience. You’ll also find out that this process requires a lot of simplification and that will bring you precious clarity about what you are trying to accomplish across the board.

The Rise Of The WordPress Powered Application: Revealing a Tension

Even more interesting to me is the rise of the WordPress application. Oh yes, you better believe it, there will be more WordPress applications coming in 2014. And this idea of running an app on top of WordPress brings about an interesting dilemma. I’m not talking about how WordPress might not be suitable as an App framework. Lots of purists will say that by the way. But these same people also rubbish WordPress in general despite that it’s by far the most popular CMS on the market, showing zero signs of slowing. I think WordPress will be fine as an App framework in lots of situations, but not all. But, that’s not the issue I think.

What is the dilemma then?

Currently there are 2 familiar building blocks that are mixed to create a highly functional WordPress site. We have WordPress themes and we have WordPress plugins. The two are to be considered as accomplishing two very separate matters. The themes handle the visual presentation and the plugins provide under the hood functionality.

Of course, the lines between what themes do and what plugins do have gotten much blurrier over the years. There are plugins that do a lot of presentation stuff, there are themes that incorporate a lot of functionality. In 2013 we’ve seen lots of push back against this. Theme authors were packaging too much functionality into their themes. Especially the more expert developers in the community have pointed out the perils of doing that. And as theming has become more popular, a general emphasis on coding quality has reached beyond a niche group of developers to the wider community. The most visible evidence of this came when ThemeForest decided to raise their theme requirements, in turn causing considerable revolt among its base of theme authors.

But there’s an interesting dilemma here that isn’t quite being addressed by a pathological desire to meet coding standards and conform to best practices. This too is a perception problem.

On a code and file system level, we want to uphold the highest possible standards. This is good for everyone involved. It makes everything better and conversely, doing the opposite only serves to increase problems. The basic guideline is a golden one: use plugins for functionality and let your theme focus solely on presentation.

I’m perfectly fine with this guideline, but it doesn’t address this problem we have of dealing with situations where the lines get blurred. Think of the new users, a client perhaps, or someone just getting into WordPress. These people think in terms of solutions to what they want to accomplish. They buy, download and install solutions. They don’t go out to download plugin files and theme files.

We’ve been treating plugins and themes like separate units. That makes sense on a code and file organization level, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of selling a solution. If you want to sell a solution that involves plugin stuff along with a theme, because that’s kind of how we look at it, it’s a pain. We have to go out of our way to include some kind of plugin installer that runs when we install a theme and then ask the user if they want to add this and that plugin. It’s an entirely fragmented and overly complicated process. But we kinda have to do it that way, because, you know, it’s very important that we treat plugins and themes as separate things.

Now, some people are so against the horror of themes packing all kinds of functionality that they rail against it blindly. Now some are trying to dictate what a theme should do or not do. And I do get it. It truly is not ideal to have all kinds of functionality code in your theme folder. It locks you in, it’s hard to maintain, it makes things messier. It’s not the way to go. But we do need a way to sell solutions that feel like a cohesive unit, a combination of files that accomplishes certain things for our business. To a certain extent, maybe we need to look at how we regard the whole process of installing components in WordPress. There should be a cohesive, nice way to install solutions.

And this point is the perfect time to get back to the other trend I mentioned: the rise of the WordPress application. You see, applications perfectly highlight this weird friction in WordPress surrounding the two types of building blocks called the theme and the plugins. How can you go about installing an application on WordPress? How does a WordPress developer sell a solution without causing their customers headaches? Must the user oversee a complicated installation process that juggles plugin folders and theme folders? I should hope not.

I would love to say I have the perfect solution to offer up here. But I do think whatever is going to happen, it will also have to change the perception about how we install solutions using WordPress.

And I know the problem is real. Right now there’s a very interesting project happening called o2. It’s the spiritual successor to the P2 theme. The P2 theme is perhaps one of the earliest kinds of WordPress applications and definitely one of the most successful. It has tons of logic in its files. It doesn’t operate like a normal theme because it really is a community type tool, with front-end posting being its most prominent feature. The successor o2 is only widening that gap between what the normal theme does and what o2 does. In fact, calling it a theme is not even appropriate. It is an application with tons of client side javascript goodness. There are even rumblings of having Node.js power some of the back-end. Now we’re definitely outside of traditional WordPress solution territory! That is exciting. It will reshape how we think about WordPress.

Something I’m most looking forward to seeing is how the o2 team is actually going to package it up. What’s the installation process going to be like? Will it be a plugin? Will there be extra server requirements (node.js?), will it rely on a 3rd party service? How will it go about doing that?

Beyond Plugins and Themes

Thinking about this paradigm of plugin vs theme packages, what would be the evolution of that? How can we have people thinking of installables as solutions and have them installed that way? I’m not completely sure what it would look like. Maybe it would be called a package installer or a solution installer. It could contain plugins and theme files, but behind the scenes installation logic would handle all the specifics. To the user, they would just be installing a solution. I kind of like the idea behind that.

New terrritory

This year will also be the year many WordPress developers will get their feet wet creating actual mobile applications. This is not a terribly bold prediction because just recently a new tool as arrived on the scene called AppPresser which has the potential to be the gateway that was needed to get web oriented WordPress developers to start coding for mobile. What AppPresser does is handle a bunch of the details in meshing up with another bridging tool: Phonegap. What Phonegap does is provide a way to code an application using html, css and js and install it as a mobile application. Phonegap exposes a mobile’s device features through javascript, allowing you to really take advantage of what mobile has to offer while living in the web based technology stack you are already comfortable with.

Another not so bold prediction is this: there will be a lot of mediocre WordPress powered apps springing up. This seems a bit harsh, right? We now have the right tools for the job don’t we?

Creating really good mobile apps is not easy. People coming from developing on WordPress will face an entirely new learning curve. It requires a much higher attention to detail to performance. To give an example, with the average WordPress theme you can get away with not having to think too hard about CSS rendering performance issues, but those are magnified on mobile devices.

There is also that danger that people will think that you can just create a decent turn key solution now that the tools are here. Just because the tools make it possible, does not make it easy. I predict there will plenty of sluggish apps with less than stellar performance that are sold to clients on low budgets.

AppPresser itself also does not (yet) assist much in the way of offline support. Meaning, currently AppPresser built apps will be pretty much reliant on an internet connection. The folks have understated how important offline functionality is (because lots of other apps require an internet connection too). It means – I believe – that really good apps built via AppPresser will have to figure out how to close the gap between the performance of ‘real’ native apps and those mediated by PhoneGap and a WordPress site.

To give AppPresser some credit here, they have definitely signaled to would-be developers that this is not a solution to turn just about any WordPress theme into an app. They don’t advertise it as turn key in such. They clearly want to avoid having to be associated with low quality apps that you particularly see with tools that promise a no-coding click and build solution.

Having said all that, AppPress could accelerate the evolution of WordPress as a whole. Very exciting!

So, about 2014

In my world WordPress is a bit like building with Lego and we are growing the kinds of creations we can make with it as well as expanding on how we can reach, surprise and delight people. What I love most about using WordPress as the foundation for a rich experience is that it can be self-hosted, it’s fully open source, it’s highly adaptable and easy to install. This is such a great alternative to using a multitude of 3rd party companies that dictate what is done with your data and what can and cannot be done with an app or site.

This year will bring will be the most creative year in WordPress yet.

And 2015?

One trend I haven’t mentioned, purely because it will take at least another year, is a fuller realization of this idea of WordPress as an operating system for the web. This trend I’m talking about would bring WordPress even closer to its users. It’s having WordPress as a backbone for self-hosted applications running on small, tiny networking computers that you can buy for trivial prices. I think we may see WordPress expanding into this new area. The two key indicators here are the emergence of the affordable plug computer (such as the Raspberry Pi), an easy to use operating system, such as arkOS, and the increasing desire among users to gain more control over one’s own data. This could open the door to all kinds of cool applications that could be built using WordPress, such as a private diary, a fitness logging tool, a notepad-like tool, a social network for your family. All these things could run on your own network soon, with hardware you own and software you can use freely. The possibilities are endless.

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