This morning, Twitter pointed me to an article claiming the latest and forthcoming updates to WordPress were boring and showed that WordPress itself was beginning to fall behind other leaders in web development:
"Boring, Boring WordPress: Why WP is Falling Behind" http://t.co/u9WcJDjwwx
— David Bisset (@dimensionmedia) November 7, 2013
Among other things, this article cited Ghost, Medium, and Squarespace as examples where WordPress has failed to innovate as quickly as other platforms. It also broke down certain features coming with WordPress 3.8 as examples of WordPress’ failures as a thought leader. These comparisons as hugely misstated and gloss over several key reasons WordPress is still in the lead.
Ironically, Ghost was originally envisioned as a WordPress plugin that would evolve into a separate fork of the project that inspired it. Ghost is beautiful, but also riddled with a few problems of its own.
Firstly, it runs on a completely different software stack than most self-hosted blogging/CMS products. I’m a user and advocate of Node JS, and even I had difficulty getting my first Ghost installation set up. Once it was running, though, I thoroughly enjoyed using the platform. I haven’t switched from WordPress yet for one very specific reason:
Ghost doesn’t add anything that WordPress doesn’t already have.
The one groundbreaking feature: side-by-side live content preview. Sadly, you can only edit the markdown and not the live preview of your content, so billing this particular features as a WYSIWYG editor is difficult. Would I like a live content preview in WordPress? Absolutely. But this implementation falls short and not having it in WordPress is a good thing.
I’ve always found it ironic that some of the leading developers in the WordPress project use Medium to blog rather than WordPress. Ironic, not problematic. To not use a product that’s competing in your space (and, hopefully, learn from the things it does well) is hubris. So what does Medium do better than WordPress exactly? Three things: the editor, the front-end experience, and the network.
The network – all content is hosted on a single, interconnected site – is great for content discovery and community. WordPress – the software – doesn’t have this. Yet. With WordPress.com and Jetpack in the mix this is always a possibility, and not having this as a core WordPress feature isn’t a failing.
The front-end of Medium is gorgeous and, in my opinion, leagues ahead of the default WordPress theme for casual bloggers. Read that again – for casual bloggers. WordPress isn’t just for bloggers any more, so comparing default themes is comparing apples to oranges. Add in the fact that there are Medium-style themes for WordPress and it’s a non-comparison.
Finally, the editor of Medium accomplishes the goal of making blogging feel more like writing and less like filling in a form on a database application. It’s subtle, elegant, and completely distraction free. Wait, that sounds oddly like the distraction-free editor that ships with WordPress.
With all of this in mind, added to the fact that Medium is not open source and is only available as a hosted application, and I question the rationale behind anyone claiming it’s beating WordPress.
I have to admit, Squarespace has some features that look really interesting. Their WYSIWYG content editor is far superior than the one in WordPress, but that’s an innovation that could easily be implemented anywhere (and likely will in time). The rest of the product, however, appears to merely match WordPress’ functionality. Drag-and-drop image upload. Customizable page templates. Responsive design. WordPress already has all this and more.
What Squarespace has that WordPress lacks, though, is a closed-source model. You can’t download Squarespace and install it on your own server – the only way to use it is to pay someone else a monthly fee to use the software on their system. In a world powered by open source, this is a massive failing.
WordPress 3.8 is an experimental release. It began development in parallel with the previous 3.7 release – a highly risky move to begin with. It’s development was also focused on feature plugins like MP6 rather than feature-centered patches against a live subversion repository.
Why does this count as experimental?
For the first time, you could run the majority of WordPress 3.8 before the software itself hit beta. Just install the feature plugins slated for inclusion and go. Even though the version in my footer claims I’m on 3.7.1, I’ve been running with 3.8 features since before 3.7 was released.
MP6, the new UI for WordPress 3.8, ships weekly releases. The mentality of “release early and iterate” is alive and well here, and absent from just about any other open source (or closed source) project I’ve ever seen.
Experimental? It’s a hugely new development paradigm and so far has been very successful.
Are the features experimental? In a way, yes. MP6 in particular was originally part of WordPress core. When the new UI shipped in a nightly release, the WordPress community didn’t like it. 1 Rather than forcing too-rapid of a change on the community, the UI was pulled out and rolled into a plugin to encourage ongoing development.
It’s hard to claim a project is “boring” or “standing still” when it’s moving so fast that it’s user base panics when a change that “changes nothing” but the admin theme is steeped in so much controversy.
WordPress is a specific implementation of an idea – that everyone should have a voice and should be able to publish their story without the medium through which that story is told getting in the way. For many – ~20% of the Internet in fact – it does this very well. Other products like Medium, Ghost, Tumblr, Twitter, etc are also implementations of the same idea.
They’re all different, and all work to serve a different vision of how this idea works best. No one product is better than any of the others, but they might fit better for certain businesses, individuals, and use cases.
When it comes to features, these products share a lot. They also seize the opportunity to innovate on features and, each of the other projects can learn from these innovations. Does Tumblr’s popular blogging UI mean it’s leading ahead of Medium? Not in the least. Does Twitter’s real-time consumption model mean Ghost should pack up and go home? No.
WordPress, among all of these, has been around the longest and has paved the way for some of these projects to exist. It’s supported by a community of thousands and used by a community of millions. Some of its features are revolutionary 2, while others are a bit rough around the edges. Does this roughness mean WordPress is falling behind? Not in the least.
An innovative feature is just that – a feature. It’s not the character of a product or the communities that build and use it. A feature can be copied, character can’t. The open source nature of WordPress was unique when it was introduced and continues to lead in that space. A rapid-development model built around this unique, open source community helps further establish WordPress as a leader in the space.
Is WordPress behind Medium and the like in the race? In ways perhaps. But not because it’s falling behind; if anything WordPress has lapped the competition.