The Future of WordPress

by Natasha Postolovski. Writer, maker, traveler.

Photo by Serge Kij.

There’s one thing that we can all agree on: the future of WordPress is bright.

Outside of this, the ever-passionate WordPress community is a hotbed for debates on where WordPress should go from here. With 22% of websites running on WordPress, a vibrant open-source community, amazing themes and plugins and a developer-friendly mindset, WordPress is stronger today than it has ever been.

So, what’s next? Inspired by WP Think Tank’s recent Future of WordPress panel, we spoke to several prominent members of the WordPress community about their vision for the future of WordPress.

UI Improvements

WordPress is powerful software, allowing both users and developers to almost infinitely extend and customize it. Innovative uses for WordPress, like WooCommerce, Happytables, and AppPresser, are testament to this. But this rich feature-set and developer friendliness can come at the cost of approachability and ease of use for new or non-tech savvy users.

Mike Little, co-founder of WordPress, confirms that this is a priority for WordPress going forward.

I know there are multiple strands of work in progress to achieve that [a better UI] and make it even easier for people starting out.

As soon as you learn the basics in WordPress, it’s all really easy, but until you learn the basics, it’s actually not. I know that a lot of effort is being put into making these first steps much easier, so that someone brand new can just press that “one-click install” button and be easily led through the next steps.

I think this is the biggest challenge, because as more and more people use WordPress, essentially you’ll have more people who are less tech-savvy, and it’s important to make it easy for them to come on board.

Mike Little (WordPress co-founder)

Other pundits in the community agree, like ThemeForest & CodeCanyon Quality Team Leader, Stephen Cronin:

Other content management systems, such as Ghost, have taken the publishing experience to a new level. WordPress needs to respond and make the Admin area simpler and easier to use. Advanced functionality still needs to be available to power users, but it shouldn't get in the way of the average user. Finding the right balance will be difficult, but I think they [the WordPress team] are up to it.

Stephen Cronin (ThemeForest and CodeCanyon Quality Team Leader)

UI improvements were the one aspect of WordPress's future that everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on: the platform could be easier to use. But in the first WP Think Tank panel, Matt Mullenweg highlighted the fact that this is, essentially, a truism: that nobody is going to say that a given piece of software should be harder to use. He suggested that the team is constantly working on incremental UI changes already, and will continue to do so.

Many in the community are fans of this incremental approach:

There is always going to be room for improvement in the WordPress admin panel. The amazing contributors are already doing a great job. One of the best examples is the new themes section which is a 100% improvement over the old one.

Muhammad Haris (ThemeFusion)

However, some in the community feel like this work is not being done fast enough, like James Farmer, founder and CEO of WPMU DEV:

Sure, WP may be powering 22% of the web and growing, but it’s standing still. Maneuvering more like an ocean liner than a zippy yacht.

And that makes it both vulnerable to competition and complaints, and the biggest challenge to all of us working with the software, the question of how long will users stand this kind of experience and lack of progress.

James Farmer, Boring, Boring, Boring WordPress: Why WordPress is Falling Behind

When the WordPress admin is compared side by side to its competitors, it is clear that it is not on the cutting edge of UI design. The question is: how much does this matter, really?

The community is divided on this, though the consensus among panelists at WP Think Tank was that the admin UI is due for an overhaul. It has not been significantly overhauled since the Dec 2008 'Coltrane' release (2.7), first debuted over 5 years ago.

Ghost admin interface.

Squarespace admin interface.

Medium admin interface.

Wix admin interface.

Weebly admin interface.

WordPress admin interface.

Matt Mullenweg has repeatedly emphasized that the incremental approach to improvements comes from a deliberate effort to maintain backwards compatibility. We can see this reflected in the incremental approach the team has taken to improving the WordPress UI.

Recent changes to the WordPress development workflow, like trialing features as plugins first, has sped up the pace and number of improvements added to new versions of WordPress in recent times. Still, the tension between innovation and backwards compatibility has often polarized the WordPress community.

Backwards Compatibility

Backwards compatibility is WordPress's biggest strength, and its biggest albatross.

Matt Mullenweg (CEO & Founder of Automattic)

The WordPress team is hesitant to make sweeping changes to WordPress because the platform's backwards compatibility is a core strength. Developers feel confident to build plugins, themes and extensions for WordPress because they know that future changes to the platform won't break their code. Users can update WordPress with confidence knowing that, in most cases, their themes and plugins will continue to work as before. This has been a contributing factor to WordPress's massive adoption, and to its thriving developer community.

By contrast, WordPress competitor Drupal has openly spurned backwards compatibility of code, often to the chagrin of both users and developers. The dominant market position of WordPress suggests that embracing rather than rejecting backwards compatibility was the right strategic choice.

Yet, this emphasis on backwards compatibility makes anything but careful, incremental changes impossible. This is a tension WordPress seems to wrestle with every day.

Success brings its own drawbacks, and WordPress is an excellent example of this. After more than ten years of powering sites around the web, WordPress rests atop a huge legacy of versions, sites, and technology. Keeping backwards compatibility makes WordPress reliable. From themes to plugins, hosting to UI, ask a WordPress user from five years ago to do something in WordPress today and they'll figure it out in no time at all. As a comparable example, try putting a Windows XP user straight into Windows 8.

And therein lies the question. Does WordPress need a radical shift in its core? Maybe a shift in user experience? Or a reworking of its plugin architecture? Perhaps a different approach to design and theming? Many of these efforts are much much harder when you need to maintain strong backwards compatibility.

Collis Ta'eed (CEO of Envato)

All signs from Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg suggest that WordPress will continue to maintain backwards compatibility above all else, and will further continue to make only incremental changes to the platform.

We rewrite or refactor about 10 to 15% of WordPress in most releases, so that we can keep users getting updates and new features quickly, while doing the “ground up rebuild” incrementally in the background, fixing bugs and getting feedback as we go. Sometimes old functions hang out for a while... [such as] deprecated.php. That’s because we try to be good about backwards-compatibility, so that people can upgrade to the latest version without worry.

Matt Mullenweg (CEO & Founder of Automattic)

This suggests that WordPress will not be changing radically any time soon.

But what actually is WordPress?

More Than a Blogging Platform?

WordPress is arguably best positioned to be the way people make websites. It's already powering some 22% of them! While that's the largest share by a long way, it is, however, a long way from a majority.

I think in order to get to that future WordPress needs to resolve the fundamental question of what it is. Consider for a moment who WordPress competes with. Is it up against Tumblr and Medium? Or does it compete with Squarespace and Wix?

Right now WordPress does an impressive job of being in two categories - blogging tool and website tool. I think to power more of the web, WordPress needs to go from a blogging tool that can make websites, to a website tool that can make blogs. It's a fundamental shift, but I believe that's where WordPress is headed.

Collis Ta'eed (CEO of Envato)

WordPress has its roots as a blogging platform. Today, it is being used for blogs, eCommerce websites, membership sites, magazines, mobile applications, enterprise services, forums... the list goes on. In fact, WordPress has been used for just about every kind of app and website you can imagine. Though still primarily known as a blogging platform, it is slowly becoming a generalized application platform. With the help of plugins, extensions and custom themes it can be transformed into whatever the user needs it to be.

The WP Think Tank panelists discussed whether this has created an identity problem for WordPress. When a platform becomes more general, is it at risk of being surpassed by more specialized services with a clear user-base, and clear use-case? (Ghost is explicitly a blogging platform, for example).

However, those that I spoke to felt that the generalist nature of WordPress is a strength, not a weakness, and that WordPress should continue in this direction.

I'm a big believer in using specialized tools designed for a specific job. It's true that WordPress is a generalist platform that can be used for almost anything, but it can be turned into a specialized tool through themes and plugins. Want to start a job board? Simply get a theme or plugin that turns a WordPress site into a job board.

WordPress has all the benefits of a generalist platform, such as a low barrier to entry, very active community, etc., while at the same time offering people tools to build a specialist site.

Stephen Cronin (ThemeForest & CodeCanyon Quality Team Lead)

Tom Willmot is the CEO and co-founder of Human Made Limited, a WordPress development agency that created Happytables, a tool that allows users to create a restaurant website with the help of WordPress.

Though it runs on WordPress in the backend, the end user might never know. The landing page pictured above doesn't mention WordPress, and the developers have created a custom admin panel to suit the product's specific use case (creating a restaurant website). Applications like Happytables suggest that WordPress is reaching maturity as a generalized application platform.

Tom Willmot believes WordPress can stay true to its roots as a blogging platform while still facilitating the kind of innovation that made Happytables possible:

WordPress as a CMS is obviously going to continue to be the largest use-case for a long time to come. Web publishers need WordPress to be powerful, intuitive and robust so they can get on with their job of posting great content.

However, just because WordPress ships with a blog and CMS system doesn't mean we as developers have to use it. In-fact I think that's the core of what using WordPress as an application framework means; you can pick and choose the bits you want to use in your app.

Tom Willmot (Co-founder & CEO of Human Made)

Applications using custom wrappers around WordPress to target specific verticals (like restaurants, law firms or auto repair shops) will probably become more common in the future.

Yet Cory Miller, founder of iThemes, cautions us not to lose sight of what makes WordPress special to the majority of its users:

And although I love how WordPress allows my mom to start and maintain her high school alumni site, or for people to run full-blown ecommerce sites, empowering people to just share their lives freely with the world (on their own domain and hosting without regard to someone’s shifting policies) has been the underlying reason why WordPress is where it is today … 10 years later.

Cory Miller (CEO & Founder, iThemes)

WordPress is still perceived mainly as a blogging platform by those outside the community. The broader, more strategic work of the future will be enabling WordPress to be seen as the powerful website, application and blog builder that it has become.

Plugin Driven Development

This new approach that Matt Mullenweg has introduced to the team, of developing new features as plugins until they reach maturity to be merged into WordPress itself, is fantastic.

Developing plugins first speeds up the cycle of development and allows for things to be created that might otherwise have been too difficult directly. Examples being the new Widget Customizer that was added in WordPress 3.9, and also the JSON API (WP-API) that's scheduled to be added to WordPress 4.1.

Japh Thomson (X-Team)

Spearheading new development with plugins has helped speed up the overall pace of changes to the WordPress platform. Developing new features as plugins first also allows the WordPress team to test new functionality within the community before it is integrated into the WordPress core. We will most likely continue to see major plugins pave the way for core integration further down the road. If you want to know where WordPress is going, look to the some of the major plugins being released, spearheaded by members of the core team.

One such plugin to watch is Velocity Page, a powerful front-end page creation tool. Mark Jaquith, Lead Developer, describes why his team saw a need for this plugin:

I've seen people struggle with the Visual Editor in WordPress, pasting in complicated code, and using shortcode soup. I knew that for creating more complicated page layouts (that is, something beyond a fairly linear blog post), there had to be a better, more visual way of arranging text, image, video into a grid layout.

I created this plugin with an emphasis on giving people an accurate view of what the content will look like to visitors — often a pixel-perfect representation.

Mark Jaquith (a Lead Developer at WordPress)

Comments from the WordPress team and those deeply involved in the community suggest that robust content design and front-end editing tools will form part of future versions of WordPress. To reach that goal, the WordPress team will need more and better...

JavaScript

In the recent WP Think Tank, Matt Mullenweg said that increasing WordPress's JavaScript chops was a top priority. With competitors like Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, Ghost and Medium offering beautiful, JavaScript-enhanced user interfaces, the WordPress admin is at risk of becoming dated. Additionally, JavaScript tools will enable users to design content and do front-end editing without needing to code; tooling currently being spearheaded by some of WordPress's top competitors.

Mark Jaquith confirms that JavaScript makeovers are a top priority for the team:

JavaScript enables richer, faster, and more interactive web experiences. The old way is to send some data to the server, wait, and get a whole page back. With JavaScript, we can update things on the fly, send data to the server in the background while you continue to work, live-search things as you type, and more. We've been tackling many of the core WordPress experiences over the last 18 months and giving them intense JavaScript makeovers.

Mark Jaquith, (a Lead Developer at WordPress)

Japh Thomson, X-Team member and long-time WordPress advocate, believes JavaScript truly is the future of WordPress:

Having people with strong JavaScript skills contributing to the WordPress project would really help facilitate front-end editing. In fact, the entire administrative interface for WordPress could be made cleverer and more application-like. Not to mention possibilities for speedy, Node.js-based, services.

We've also seen a fairly recent spate of things occurring to indicate this really is WordPress' direction. Including the release of VelocityPage by long-time WordPress developer Mark Jaquith and team. Even the recent changes to the Widget Customizer feature in WordPress itself is a step in this direction.

Japh Thomson (X-Team)

The excitement around Barley, Aesop Story Engine, Visual Composer and Basis suggest that better front-end editing and content design are necessary additions to WordPress. Automattic's recent acquisition of Scroll Kit suggests that moves in this direction are a high priority for the WordPress team.

Reaching Enterprise

I'd like to see more agencies step up and start pitching WordPress at enterprise level organisations and government. The main reason that it's not used more in such organisations is that there are very few agencies responding to tenders with a WordPress solution.

Stephen Cronin (ThemeForest & CodeCanyon Quality Team Leader)

The sentiment that WordPress needs a further push to penetrate the enterprise market was shared by many of those I asked.

Most of the work that is required has more to do with the larger agencies getting better at selling to and working with Enterprise clients than it does about improvements to the WordPress core software itself.

Tom Willmot (Co-founder & CEO of Human Made)

However, when asked about the biggest challenge facing WordPress' growth, Matt Mullenweg recently cited mobile rather than enterprise as the next big challenge for WordPress:

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing WordPress’ growth, beyond powering “just” 22% of the Web?

Matt: I think mobile is very challenging because it’s fundamentally on closed platforms.

WordPress: How it Came to Be and Where It's Heading, Smashing Magazine (February 2014)

Though WordPress does have an enterprise offering in VIP, those I spoke to felt that WordPress is still not the platform of choice for most enterprises.

WordPress pundit Chris Lema suggests that this may have more to do with a lack of marketing and education than a lack of suitability. In fact, he suggests that WordPress is an excellent choice for enterprises:

As the Vice President of Emphasys Software, a 35-year old company that specializes in enterprise software products, and as an advisor of technology startups, I’ve seen and used WordPress as an application framework across dozens of projects for years. I choose to use WordPress for our enterprise projects for a variety of reasons. But I can distill it down to three. I use WordPress because it is easy. Because it is free. Because it is there and it makes amazing things possible.

What could have been a .NET application that our dev team might have spent days on was instead a WordPress solution that was up in less than two hours.

Chris Lema (VP of Software Engineering, Emphasys Software)

Powerful plugins will increase the appeal of WordPress to enterprise markets. Its adoption in this space is most likely hurt by the perception outside of the WordPress community that WordPress is just a blogging platform. Enterprises will feel like they need much more than that. As plugins like WooCommerce and BuddyPress become more well-known, enterprises may start to see the ways that WordPress could be customized to fit their business.

Power Elite author Muhammad Haris (ThemeFusion) echoes this. He and business partner Luke Beck created Avada, ThemeForest's highest selling theme of all time.

There's no reason not to choose WordPress when there’s a plugin to solve almost every problem.

Muhammad Haris (ThemeFusion)

The Era of Premium Plugins

I believe the gold rush era for premium plugins is here, so we are going to see an increased shift in functionality from themes to plugins.

It isn’t sustainable to cram all functionality into premium themes, and when a premium plugin comes along that handles the functionality of your theme better, it only makes sense for the theme provider to add support for the plugin, instead of building the functionality from scratch.

Magnus Jepson (Co-founder of WooThemes)

We are entering a time when WordPress plugins are having a greater impact than ever before. They're built by talented teams, are professionally presented and marketed, and plugin makers are developing effective business models.

WooThemes co-founder Mark Forrester recently said that WooCommerce now accounts for 80% of the company's revenue. In other words, themes are no longer the biggest earner at WooThemes.

At CodeCanyon, wpbakery recently became the first author to reach Power Elite status ($1 million+ in sales) on the back of a WordPress plugin, Visual Composer. The plugin has been purchased more than 27,000 times at $30 a pop. This rivals the success of even the most popular and ubiquitous WordPress themes.

Could the future of WordPress see premium plugins one day rival the dominance of premium themes? Only time will tell. However, Mark Jaquith is one pundit that believes themes will always be the driving force behind the WordPress economy:

I suspect that themes will always remain a larger market. Every WordPress site needs a theme. Not every WordPress site will need a particular plugin. But I do think that the plugin market is a lot smaller than it could be, and it's fascinating to watch people figure out business models around it.

Mark Jaquith (a Lead Developer at WordPress)

Attracting Developers

The sheer scale of WordPress is hard to compete with. It runs 22% of the web. Want to change the internet? Work on WordPress. Make it better and you instantly affect a huge swathe of the web.

Collis Ta'eed (CEO of Envato)

WordPress is looking to bolster its JavaScript talent, but leaders in the community like Jake Goldman (President & Founder of 10up) have stated that it is difficult to attract programming talent from outside the WordPress community. In the first WP Think Tank panel discussion Goldman said he felt that there was a belief in the wider programming community that WordPress "is not an interesting platform," and that this perception had made sourcing great developers more difficult for his agency.

PHP is often derided and excluded on programmer hubs like Hacker News, and many programmers scoff at working with a pre-built platform, especially one fundamentally based around PHP.

This perception presents a challenge at a time when WordPress is actively seeking talented JavaScript developers to help bolster the platform, many of whom are likely to be brought in from outside the WordPress community.

For those willing to ignore the prevailing opinions in the programming community, Tom Willmot says that WordPress presents developers with incredible opportunities, and a wonderful sense of community:

A question I get asked occasionally (especially by developers outside of WordPress) is "Why do you do WordPress". The honest answer to that is that I really think that WordPress (and the open source stack it's built upon) is the most exciting place I could be.

Just think about it, there are millions of websites built on WordPress and hundreds of thousands of developers building them; thousands of engaged people attend WordCamps every year to share stories and experiences; huge companies and governments the world over are waking up to Open Source; thousands of people make their living from the WordPress work they do. And, it feels like we're only just getting started.

Tom Willmot (CEO & Co-founder at Human Made)

Creative uses of the WordPress platform, like AppPresser, Happytables, Restuarant Engine, Hello Bar and Barley (among many others) make WordPress an even more exciting platform to work with. As time goes on we'll see more developers using WordPress as a foundation to build much needed apps and services. There has been no better time to be a developer working with WordPress.

User Base

From my perspective the biggest strength of WordPress is the size of its user base.

Andy Wilkerson (Parallelus)

Many of the people I spoke to for this article cited WordPress's primary strength as the size of its user base. Powering a staggering 1 in 5 websites, there's an enormous market for anything developers create that improves the WordPress landscape, whether it be a beautiful theme, a useful plugin, or a powerful application built around the WordPress core.

If you can create a business model around something WordPress users need, your chances of success are high. This massive user base is something that consistently attracts entrepreneurial developers to WordPress, and it is these entrepeneurial developers who will drive the future of the platform.

The huge market size and the development community around WordPress are two reasons why it is great to base your business around WordPress.

Muhammad Haris (ThemeFusion)

Some developers, like Andy Wilkerson (Parallelus), choose WordPress not because it is the platform they love the most, and not because it is a technology that excites them, but because it is a solid foundation for a business with a large customer base.

The popularity of WordPress is one reason it gets the most attention in our work right now, but given a choice of what platform to use I probably wouldn't choose WordPress. I personally like the structure of other systems better because they're closer to how I would build my own application.

Wilkerson does, however, find WordPress a joy to work with:

There is rarely anything I cannot do with the structure they [the WordPress team] have created. The core continues to improve and become even more powerful and easier to extend. If I were to say anything about what could be improved it would only be nit-picking.

Andy Wilkerson (Parallelus)

Growing the user base of WordPress will lead to a more vibrant community, more talented developers attracted to the platform, and more profits for those who base their business around WordPress.

And despite the platform's massive user base, there are still millions of people who don't realize how easy it is to create a website or blog with WordPress. There are still thousands of businesses with bad HTML websites (or no website at all) who don't realize that they could have a beautiful web presence with the help of a WordPress theme. As mentioned earlier, enterprises are still learning the benefits of WordPress. Creating a better experience on mobile overall will help attract both casual and business users.

WordPress is in a very powerful position. Simply put, every person in the world, providing they have internet access, could benefit from having a website or blog. The potential market is massive.

The only question is: what percentage of the web will run on WordPress 5 years from now?

A Snapshot of the Future

WordPress will...

  • Continue to maintain strong backwards compatibility.
  • Improve iteratively and avoid sweeping changes.
  • Continue to trial major new features as plugins.
  • Feature JavaScript enhancements to the admin.
  • Get better at front-end editing and content design.
  • Become easier for beginners to use.
  • Move away from the perception that it is just a blogging platform.
  • Make further inroads into the enterprise market.
  • Offer more possibilities as an application framework.
  • Provide the platform for a growing number of startups and services.
  • Continue to excel as a blogging platform.

Thoughts from the Community

Marc Jenkins suggests that WordPress needs to step away from maintaining such strong backwards compatibility:

Perhaps I'm biased as I don't develop plugins, but I'd love to see WordPress make a clean start for v4. They could keep supporting v3 for security-related stuff. You only have to look at Microsoft to see how backwards-compatibility can hurt and prevent moving forward as quickly as the competition.

Marc Jenkins, Web Designer

Aaron Bazinet wants WordPress to embrace a templating language over pure PHP:

I know lots of designers that get scared away by all the PHP, and a nice templating language would get tons more people trying WP.

Aaron Bazinet, Print & Web Designer

Cam Barrett works with non-profits. Though he says they tend to pick Drupal for their websites, he feels WordPress is a better fit:

The WordPress content administration interface is a 1000 times better than what's currently available in Drupal (Drupal 8, hello...where are you?). Our end users need an interface that lets them work fast and not get in the way. They are busy teachers, technology coordinators, principals and secretaries who all have other jobs they are doing in the schools. Maintaining their web site content needs to be easy, seamless, and fun. WordPress reduces that pain point more than any other CMS on the market.

Cam Barrett, Online Community Builder

Jesse Cohen suggests one of the biggest barriers to WordPress's adoption in the enterprise world is security:

There are a lot of great plugins out there and I commend the authors for trying. One thing I constantly find is that most WordPress plugins don't sanitize admin user input, they just assume that because a user is in the admin panel their intentions are genuine. This is one of many security risks that a large scale corporation can't afford to handle. Example: A top ranking SEO plugin recently had a vulnerability that allowed XSS attacks, allowing a malicious user to mess with the site's SEO settings. For $79 dollars it's just not worth it.

I do see great things for WordPress in the future but not in the corporate Microsoft driven world. They can't afford the risk and love their secure data.

Jesse Cohen, Web App Developer

Byron Houwens is concerned about WordPress's lack of focus compared to other solutions:

Ghost is focused. It's a blogging platform and that's it. Wix and Weebly are WYSIWYGs and are geared to front end and design. That's all they are and you can see it in their interfaces (look at the options in those menus). Wordpress doesn't have that kind of focus. It's a blog, but it's also a CMS, but it's also an eCommerce platform, but it's also this, and that, etc. etc.

Byron Houwens, Web Designer & Developer

And now, over to you.

What's your personal vision for the future of WordPress?

We will continue to update this post to include insightful comments and opinions from the Envato community.