Watching industries evolve is an interesting pastime. For the most part, nothing changes very often or very quickly. Established players in the market carry the torch and continue to iterate on the proven model that took them out. Newer players enter and, if not agile enough, tumble under the weight of their own success or are eaten alive by the established players before long.
Real innovation is rare. Once a company, individual or organization launches an innovation and achieves mainstream success they back off a bit. They start playing it safe. They start giving in to the needs of a market’s vocal demands.
It’s as fun to watch as it is sad.
My first experiences with Apple were in elementary school, where we used the squishy Macintosh GUI to play games, build stacks of HyperCards, and surf the limited web that was Encarta. Apple’s big marketing push at the time – and for many years after – was “think different.” They were the underdog, challenging the corporate monstrosity that was Microsoft.
Apple introduced an innovative MP3 player that wasn’t groundbreaking in technology so much as it was in the marriage of different technologies in the context of a streamlined use case. The first iPods gave way to the fancier iPod touch and paved the way quickly for the iPhone.
Steve Jobs was once asked why Apple only produced one line of iPhones and one size of iPad. His argument was that multiple lines failed to establish the product and use case they were going after. It diluted the market and, rather than creating something new, earthshattering, and beautiful, gave the consumers what they think they wanted.
After Jobs’ passing, we’ve all watched Apple essentially stop innovating. Their products are still stunning and beautiful to use. Unfortunately the against-the-grain design trend at Apple has effectively stalled. New product launches are more conservative and try to touch more segments of the market than ever before.
As the adage goes, you can’t be all things to all people. Microsoft tried to be; Apple attacked that weakness and gained rapid mainstream success. Now that Apple’s in the drivers’ seat, they’re falling prey to the same behavior. Smaller iterations, less disruptive product launches, larger market appeal.
I’ve been using WordPress to power this site for almost the entire time I’ve owned the domain (just over 7 years this summer). I’ve watched several evolutions of the UI come and go, and seen first-hand the shift WordPress has taken from single-blog powering to networks and truly right CMS platforms.
That said, I’ve also seen the innovation of the core project grind down.
When WordPress was a far smaller project, making sweeping changes to the platform in a single release was fairly simple. We released often and we iterated on releases to squash potential bugs quickly. 1 Breaking the code still ad an impact on the project overall, but it was often an acceptable risk.
Today’s WordPress, though, powers almost a quarter of the Internet. Ship code too fast, fail to test a feature, or depart too quickly from where people expect the product to perform and you’re alienating a whole lot of people.
As Tumblr began to gain popularity, many people claimed it would eventually kill WordPress. We even tried to copy some of the more popular features of Tumblr and introduced post formats to WordPress writers. Later, we tried to introduce a UI for these formats and almost shipped the new feature with core. Thankfully, we pulled it back at the last minute.
I saw “thankfully” because that feature would have single-handedly undone all of our work defining WordPress as a CMS. 2
Unfortunately, pulling this feature out of core also means WordPress has reached the point where we’re uncomfortable pushing the envelope. Mainstream success has made us gun shy, and our ability as a community to introduce more disruptive innovation into the market has been massively curtailed by the size of that market.
What Would it Take …
I’ve read several articles recently asking the question: “What would it take to dethrone WordPress?”
The premise is mostly the same: take a potential WordPress competitor (Ghost, Tumblr, Medium, Jekyll) and explain a few things they need to do well in order to knock off WordPress as the heir apparent to online publishing. Unfortunately, each of these articles starts with a flawed assumption: that market share is the end-goal of an open-source, community tool.
WordPress, like many other open source projects, didn’t begin with the aim of powering a quarter of the Internet. It didn’t even start out as Matt Mulleweg’s strategy to become a millionaire. It started as a blogging tool, and moved quickly to capitalize on opportunities presented by the market.
WordPress benefitted in the early days as being the free/open-source competitor to Movable Type when the latter changed its licensing terms in a way hostile to hosting and open content production. The massive influx of new WordPress users exposed rough edges to the software and birthed a generation of developers eager to polish those edges and cash in on the burgeoning numbers of content producers in need of WordPress developers to move and manage their content.
To build a “new” WordPress to the levels we see today would take far more than hard work and clever engineering on the part of competitive projects. It would also require a few missteps on the part of WordPress – one of which is WordPress’ current inability to further disrupt the market it serves.
What would it take to dethrone WordPress? Not much, actually. Just a solid idea that resets market expectations in such a way WordPress and others can’t satisfy. Then meeting a need that WordPress is unwilling – or unable – to fill.
Add a bit of time to the equation and the market landscape – plus who sits upon the throne – will look very different than what we see today.
- I remember more than one release where in-development features and known bugs still weren’t even finished when we moved from the betas to the release candidates. We moved forward quickly and shipped, followed shortly by point releases to patch any critical issues. ↩
- I don’t personally use post formats, but I do understand the point of them. However they are very much blog-focused. Forcing a post format feature or UI on larger media publications or anyone using WordPress to manage non-blog-style content would make anyone question why we considered this very clear blogging platform to be a CMS. ↩