Is WordPress Falling Behind? Don’t Believe the Hype

WordPress is the leading CMS on the web today, powering 1 in every 5 websites on the web according to some sources. It has become the incumbent and with that comes a truckload of daily criticism. Outsiders mock the code, or the alleged lack of security, the performance, how it is a terrible choice for anything other than a blog or how it has become bloated as a blog platform. Meanwhile, new, hip looking platforms pop up right and left, some of them outright claiming to be modern WordPress replacements. Meanwhile, one business owner with the largest WordPress community of customers outside of ThemeForest claims to be nervous about how slowly WordPress seems to innovate.

Most of these criticisms or negative viewpoints around WordPress are, to my mind, just the noise generated that come with the territory of by being a comparatively mature platform with a dominant position in the market. Sometimes we find big corporations with monopolies fall behind and crumble at the mercy of small new innovative start-ups because innovation is not embraced. One of the reasons might be because the bigger you get, the slower you can transform. Is WordPress like that?

Yes, a little, but mostly NO.

The negativity around WordPress in some circles is simply overhyped. People quickly forget or fail to understand what makes WordPress so powerful. It’s more than just the code, it’s the community and the ecosystem that has evolved out of it. More importantly, it’s the open source foundation its based on: a vision of making publishing on the web easy and inclusive to all, building something beautiful on free software principles. In a single concept, it’s about freedom.

When people demonstrate some other product that is supposed to compete with WordPress, they typically gloss over what actually WordPress provides. They say: “see this new platform, it’s more minimalist, it’s simpler and more beautiful to use! It’s so much better than WordPress.” Forget that it’s only good for simple sites that require only minimal functionality, the bigger point is that it’s a fools errand to make comparisons based on one or two features while blanking out on the enormously rich ecosystem and ethos around WordPress.

Or they say how much better the code is because it uses a trendier language, compared to the much maligned PHP. Except the trendier language is not as widely available as PHP, making the barrier to entry higher. Except the fact that PHP abundantly has proved to work despite its shortcomings. And overlooking the fact that virtually all platforms, WordPress included, are becoming more Javascript centric anyway.

It’s relatively easy to start a new, lean product that does a handful of features well and starts out with a nice looking interface and fresh code base. But when that product matures over the years, the code base will grow, features will be added (or not) and after a while, people will be lamenting how bloated it has become, or how it doesn’t adopt certain principles, or how it has lost its vision, or how it can no longer make radical changes without upsetting all its users. And that is if it gets any lasting traction. The majority of new software initiatives simply fail and wither before they even reach that stage.

WordPress is one of the biggest success stories of Open Source software. What are the odds of any open source project growing into something so large? Pretty small. That is one reason alone to not buy into the hype of any young product that is aiming to out-innovate WordPress. So many things need to align for something to grow so successfully.

Is WordPress innovating fast enough?

Let’s be real, of course WordPress needs to keep innovating or it will fall behind. But its pace of innovating is probably perfectly fine.

There will always be an urge to have a knee-jerk reaction when some other platform accomplishes some feature in a ‘sexy’ way. If anything, the desire to integrate a similar feature over too quickly leads to bad decision making. A case could be made that the efforts to integrate a new post formats UI (something Tumblr does well) has been a frustrating affair because not enough vision was applied to how it fits in with WordPress and its vast user base.

Some of the exciting developments in WordPress don’t really pop out to most end-users just by reading the feature lists. WordPress as a tool is getting better. There are tens of thousands of hours going into WordPress from developers all around the world. That’s some seriously valuable work that you get to play with when you develop on top of WordPress.

Some of the coolest developments to me involve the api improvements. These open up new possibilities that you just couldn’t easily and robustly do in the past. In the near future WordPress will integrate a new JSON api (now available as a plugin), making the creation of rich client side functionality even easier than before. The better the tool gets, the more developers can do with it. And it’s what people do with the tool that impacts innovation more than anything. What awesomely innovative things can you do with Medium? Tumblr? Ghost? Any fill-in-the-blank static site generator? Or one of the many generic click and point site builders? It doesn’t compare to what you can do with WordPress. Not even close.

There are innovation pains

It would be false to say there aren’t any issues with innovating the WordPress code base. The burden of backward compatibility does make an impact. Integrating real big changes into WordPress can take many releases. Considering that releases tend to take their time, some of the more exciting things can take a long time to materialize. Things like an api for custom comment types, a better infrastructure and api for making relationships between different types of data in the WordPress database, a less cluttered back-end experience, better front-end controls. All of these things take a long time to do properly. Take the widgets API – now being addressed as a feature as a plugin – it will not be radically improved in WordPress 3.8. Instead it will get some smaller UI improvements. A big do over for a component that is used by millions can’t be rushed. This is something all successful products have to contend with.

Another measure of innovation

While WordPress core may move slowly for some, this is not the only way to measure innovation. With every new release developers are able to do more with WordPress. Some older products that were built on top of WordPress had to work really hard to get certain functionality into WordPress. Now those kinds of functions have become much easier to implement (forums, memberships sites, ecommerce functionality). Whether it’s because the API has become better or things have gotten easier to setup, the ability to innovate on top of WordPress just grows. End-users just care about results and there is a huge user base for developers to build innovating products for, leveraging all that WordPress provides.

Let’s put this in a different way. If you are complaining about the lack of innovation in WordPress, build something more innovative. The choice is this, either start from scratch and burden yourself with the need to code up all kinds of basic functionality needed for a platform, or get a multi-million dollars worth head start with WordPress that also happens to have the biggest user base of all CMS-es. I know what platform I’m using and I’m certainly not worried about WordPress falling behind. If something radically better surfaces, would I consider using it? Frankly, the odds of that happening right now are small and it won’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to make something truly great.

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