The Fascinating Future of WordPress in 2013 and Beyond

WordPress has just celebrated its 9th birthday, making now the perfect time to look to the future to see where the world’s most popular CMS is heading.

After some extensive research, feverish digging, and a fair amount of trend watching from the plugin and theme developer communities, I’ve identified the key innovations in what’s shaping up to be a fasincating few years for WordPress in 2013 and beyond.

Is WordPress threatened by Tumblr? Can it make the transition to tablets? And will its new features make our lives more or less complicated?

The Official Future of the WordPress Core

At the time of writing, WordPress is currently on version 3.3.2, with version 3.4 in the Release Candidate stage and due to be rolled out imminently. Through 2012, WordPress versions 3.5 and 3.6 are expected, with each version bringing a few new features to the WordPress feature set.

WordpPess 3.4

These updates are part of the official WordPress roadmap as determined by the WordPress Core development team (and driven by features requests from users). However, although the development team has a clear(ish!) roadmap of future improvements, it only discusses those features that are being developed for the next release. At the moment, that’s WordPress 3.4, which is due to be released in the next week or two.

That’s not exactly looking far into the future!

As for WordPress 3.5? Nothing! Not a peep. Maybe a new gallery management system, maybe not. Definitely the new 2012 theme (which should have shipped with WordPress 3.3). Aside from that, there’s no info whatsoever.

However, the official roadmap, whatever it may be, isn’t the only way that WordPress will change, though.

Its community of plugin developers is so vibrant (there are now over 19,000 plugins available) that it’s quite possible WordPress will morph into something different entirely, as the plugin community is far more agile than the Core development team.

I’ll get to what the community is up to in a minute, though. Before that, let’s see what’s officially coming up for WordPress over the next year or so.

What new in WordPress 3.4

The biggest new feature of WordPress 3.4 is a new Theme Customizer, which lets you change a variety of theme elements without having to edit any code. It’s not exactly a fully functional theme editor, but it does give you the option of changing the following elements by the click of a mouse:

  • Site Title
  • Site Tagline
  • Header Image
  • Header Text
  • Background Image
  • Background Colour
  • Menu Selection
  • What the Front Page displays

Not only can you adjust all of these elements, but you can also get a non-destructive live preview of how your theme looks when you make your changes. This should provide a more consistent user experience, so you know exactly where to go to adjust these settings regardless of the theme you use.

WordPress 3.4 Theme Customizer

The rest of the new features, though, are minor updates, performance improvements and tweaks. The theme chooser has been streamlined, image captions now support HTML, and tweets can be embedded in a post just by providing a link to a tweet (actually, quite a nice feature).

And that’s about it. You can find a full list of new features here and here.

WordPress 3.5 Features

Currently only being discussed (and certainly not yet decided upon), WordPress 3.5’s features could include:

  • The new 2012 theme (see sketches below)
  • Gallery Management

The 2012 theme is being created by Theme Foundry, and should look something like this:

First Sketch of WordPress 2012 theme

First Sketch of WordPress 2012 theme

 

WordPress 3.6

Not even the WordPress Core team knows what will be in WordPress 3.6 (or if they do, they’re not telling!)

WordPress in 2013

Although there’s no official word on what new features WordPress will boast in 2013, hints have been given by WordPress supremo Matt Mullenweg. In particular, he’s mentioned how WordPress needs to adapt to the changing environment of the Web, with both mobile and social now having a much greater influence on people’s Web browsing and content creation behavior than ever before.

Here are some of his thoughts on where he sees WordPress going.

Radically simplifying WordPress

Matt Mullenweg

Matt Mullet-weg

The new versions of WordPress that will be released in 2012 are relatively minor updates that just tinker at the edges.
Much bigger changes are coming for WordPress in 2013, particularly in terms of its Admin section, as it responds to the increasing influence of mobile, tablet and social technologies.

Speaking to Anil Dash recently, Mullenweg said that WordPress was now entering its fourth phase of its evolution.

“WordPress was first for pure blogging, then became embraced as a CMS (92% of people use it as a CMS), and is seeing growth and innovation in being used as an application platform (I think we’re about a third of the way through that). What comes next is the true marriage of blogs, smartphones, and social media – the fourth phase of our evolution.”

Mobile, in particular, has thrown up new challenges for the platform, with the tablet experience being one that’s calling for a fundamental redesign of the way WordPress posts are created.

“…It’s not a matter of a responsive stylesheet or incremental UX improvements,” Mullenweg told Dash. “It’s re-imagining and radically simplifying what we currently do, thinking outside the box of wp-admin…I think when [WordPress] turns 10 in 2013 the ways people experience and publish with WordPress will be shorter, simpler, faster.”

A radical new experience for WordPress on Mobile

One thing that WordPress hasn’t done well so far is mobile. It’s difficult to create blog posts on smartphones and tablets, yet Mullenweg’s identified the smartphone as a fundamentally easier way to blog about yoru life.

Simply put, the smartphone can take photos and video far easier than your laptop ever could. The only difficulty with creating posts on a mobile, then, is with writing text. But even that’s not a problem – voice dictation will solve that, with apps like Siri becoming much better at recognizing and transcribing voice.

Once that happens, the majority of content – photos, videos, and text – will then be created on a smartphone or tablet.

New integration with other services

Mullenweg has also revealed that with the huge amount of content sharing (and tweeting, liking, pinning, etc!) that today’s Web users engage in, WordPress will get new tools that’ll make it much easier to share posts with other services.

Not just “share this” buttons, but actual sharing functionality baked into WordPress itself. Tumblr in particular is going to be a big platform for sharing a post you’ve just written.

In an extensive interview with PandoDaily’s Sara Lacy (which you can see below), Mullenweg preannounced just such a new feature:

“Let’s say there’s a way that when you post to WordPress, your post goes to Tumblr as well. Then you get the distribution of all your followers on Tumblr while still retaining a place on the Web for your post that people are going to visit…I think that if Tumblr continues on its path WordPress and Tumblr could be highly complementary in that regard.”

It’s interesting to see how Mullenweg calls out Tumblr as being a service to integrate with. Tumblr has seen record popularity over the past 18 months (see below), and is rapidly becoming a direct challenger to WordPress.

WordPress Tumblr trend

WordPress vs Tumblr popularity

Tumblr has achieved its rise in popularity in part by embracing content sharing as an inherent part of its platform (via its dashboard) – something that WordPress sorely lacks. But it’s also ridiculously easy to setup a Tumblr blog and post to it, something that can’t be said of a self-hosted WordPress blog.

In the interview (aroudn 1 hour 35 minutes into it), Mullenweg revealed that he was fully aware of that, but not worried by it, as it’s an “interface effect rather than network effect”, and interfaces are always something that can be iterated on and improved. He also hinted that WordPress will see somethign “radically different” in that respect, responding to Tumblr’s ease of use.

I have to say, it’s good to see WordPress moving in this direction (although achingly slowly), but the community itself has already seen this problem and has themes and plugins on the market now that try to make WordPress much easier to use.

So let’s see what the plugin and theme community’s vision of WordPress is like, and where it’s headed.

The Unofficial Future of WordPress

Mullenweg name-checks Tumblr as both a great social distribution platform and a low friction way of blogging, but there’s a whole host of WordPress plugins and themes that aim to reduce the friction of setting up and managing a WordPress blog. In particular, there are two key trends that together are removing the friction of creating and running a site:

  • Visual Theme Design
  • A Fully Managed Self-Hosted WordPress

Visual Theme Design

The Theme Customizer feature of WordPress 3.4 acknowledges the trend of creating and editing a theme’s design without code, but as ever, the WordPress community is way ahead of the Core.

Everything from full WYSIWYG theme development frameworks, to plugins, and ever-more sophisticated theme editing panels is now available as a way to customize a theme without editing a line of code, with different developers releasing their own – very different – solutions.

Here are just some of the more popular solutions.

WYSIWYG Theme Development Frameworks

Some solutions, such as Headway and PageLines, provide a complete drag and drop user interface. You simply draw a box, give it a role (say, header, footer, sidebar, etc.), and then apply its properties (colour, font-size, borders, etc.). You literally paint your theme as if you were drawing it in a wireframing tool.

Push Button Themes

Other solutions offer a push button approach, providing a seemingly endless array of buttons, checklists and options in the WordPress admin section, with each button altering the theme’s design in some way.

In reality, the button is simply a user interface control on top of a WordPress hook or stylesheet option, but it does insulate the
user from the code.

It’s not as powerful as the full WYSIWYG design approach, but it’s a technique used these days by pretty much every theme that’s out there. Chris Pearson’s Thesis theme arguably started this trend, but it’s reached its climax, perhaps, with the Ultimatum Theme, which is nothing but a gigantic set of tweakable options!

Visual Page Designer Plugins

Another solution is the plugin, such as Visual Composer, which replaces the WordPress post and/or page editor. The Visual Composer interface lets you drag, drop and resize different modules onto your page, each with different functionality.

Some of these modules are extremely powerful, letting you create an entirely novel page design with sliders, tweets, columns, tabs – even all of your post excerpts, and all within any theme. It’s therefore a lot more flexible than the dedicated theme approach.

Because it replaces the post and page editor, any change you make will only affect the main content part of your theme. The header, sidebar and footer remain completely untouched (unless you choose an entirely blank Page template).

Visual Composer is ideal for customizing an existing theme, as the look and feel of the theme is retained, while you alter the layout of the content any way you like.

Customizable Shortcodes

Getting closer to the code is the custom shortcode creator approach, best adoted by Types and Views. This provides an easy way for turning your code (e.g. blocks of HTML and JavaScript) into shortcodes, which can then be embedded into a page on your theme.

It’s a much more sophisticated approach than Visual Composer, harder to use, but more powerful. With Visual Composer, you’re restricted to the content modules (post excerpts, text blocks, columns, etc.) that the plugin author provides.

With Text and Views you can create your own modules, turn them into shortcodes and then embed them wherever you like in your theme.

Super-Flexible Themes

Finally, some themes just provide a back-end editing system that’s so flexible, the theme is virtually a WYSIWYG editor in its own right. MySiteMyWay’s theme options, for example, provide countless variations of the theme, such that you can almost bend a MySiteMyWay theme to any design you like.

Even small theme shops are getting in on the act. IndustrialThemes’s Continuum theme offers so many options for customization, it nearly doubles the size of the WordPress admin section!

Continuum WordPress theme

Continuum WordPress theme

This does, of course, require extensive coding in the theme to achieve this, something that not all theme designers are capable of. There’s usually a distinct split between good coders and good designers, with good designers who can code well (and vice versa) being in very short supply.

To address this, there are now a number of plugins and frameworks that a theme developer can use that provide a theme customization user interface without code. Frameworks and plugins like No Half Pixel’s NHP Theme Options Framework, Up Themes’ Framework, and WP Theming’s Options Framework Plugin all provide a ready-made user interface which the developer can then plug into their theme to let the user adjust its customizable settings.

Indeed, this burgeoning new field of theme support tools is itself becoming a new trend, as WordPress’s own tools for developing themes and plugins is actually rather thin.

Where this trend is headed

This trend has emerged from the needs of users not being met by WordPress. If you don’t know PHP, HTML or CSS, WordPress themes are not easy to customize. However, the visual theme editors from the plugin and theme community are being developed in an ad hoc way, with everything from themes to plugins to shortcodes being pitched as the solution.

This can only confuse the user even more, and it certainly makes supporting different themes more difficult. With so much confusion, there’s a real need for the WordPress Core team to take the lead on this and either take WordPress 3.4’s Theme Composer much further, or provide a set of standard hooks and recommendations for plugin developers to create their own standardized solutions.

And it won’t be before time. WordPress has competition, which is rapidly overtaking it in terms of ease of use. SquareSpace, for example, already offers a user-friendly WYSIWYG editor out the box, as well as loads of themes, while Jux and Tumblr, although not as feature-rich as WordPress, are much easier to use.

WordPress has done an excellent job in democratizing publication – now it needs to recognize the need to democratize theme development as well.

Fully Managed Self-Hosted WordPress

If you’ve ever published a decent-sized WordPress blog for any length of time, you’ll know just what a pain managing it can be. Server issues, web host issues, database issues, backups, cacheing, hackers, Denial of Service attacks, spammers, continuously updating WordPress plugins, themes and core files – the management of a site is no trivial undertaking.

In the years that I’ve managed my WordPress blogs, I’ve become adept at configuring Apache, PHP, MySQL, CPanel, and WHM; I’ve got a set of trusted WordPress plugins I use to keep out the bad guys, and another set of performance optimizing plugins to speed up the Web site; and I’ve got my own backup system worked out.

All of this was assembled only after years of trial, error and painful experience, though!

There are easier approaches. None of this is necessary with Tumblr, SquareSpace, or any of the hosted CMSes (including WordPress.com). But little, if anything, has been done by WordPress to alleviate these problems for self-hosted blogs.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see companies launching that take the pain out of managing WordPress (albeit for a hefty price!).

Robust WordPress hosting solutions from the likes of Page.ly, WPEngine and Web Synthesis will ensure your blog is secure, fast and constantly updated, so you never need to go near Apache again.

WordPress’s parent company Automattic now provides VaultPress, an outstanding backup and security plugin. Last year, this nifty utility not only informed me of the TimThumb vulnerability in one of my site’s themes, it updated the offending code before I was even aware the vulnerability existed.

VaultPress now has competition, too, with Sucuri providing grade-A security support, which should not only protect your blog against attacks, but clean up after them as well.

Going one stage further is CloudFlare, which offers both protection and performance through its Content Distribution Network that not only distributes your content across the world, it also protects your site from spammers, hackers and Distributed Denial of Service attacks.

Finally, ManageWP is a superb new plugin for managing multiple WordPress sites from a single admin interface, and provides great backup, security, server uptime monitoring and easy updating services for a very reasonable price.

I use it, and the time it’s saved me in updating plugins, themes and versions of WordPress alone is well worth the money. Add in its ability to scan all of your sites for malware from a single click, and easy backup and now migration and cloning options, and it’s one of the best plugins to be released in quite some time.

Where this Trend is Heading

WordPress is becoming easier to manage, but only thanks to the plugin community. There’s always been a real gap in the market for efficient, cost effective WordPress management solutions, and it’s a relief to see that gap is finally being closed.

As more entrants launch in this space, so the competition will reduce the price and improve the features. The combination of the stress-free approach of WordPress.com with the power, functionality and flexibility of a self-hosted WordPress blog is still some way off, but it can’t be long before someone offers just such a service.

WPEngine, Page.ly and Synthesis are not the solution yet. Although very reasonable for individual blogs, they’re much too expensive for multiple blogs. That should change.

Besides, the features they offer can be provided by plugins such as ManageWP, CloudFlare and Sucuri anyway, making a semi-managed solution much more cost effective.

With hosting costs still rapidly declining across the sector, though, and with management plugins improving all the time, it shouldn’t be too long before the dream of an affordable fully-managed self-hosted blog becomes reality.

Summary

Now 9 years old, WordPress supports over 60 million sites. In many ways, it’s now falling behind the curve, with a clunky interface, limited social integration, poor mobile tools, and a development schedule that never quite gets round to introducing new features of any import.

WordPress may have seen off the likes of Drupal and Joomla, but it’s got a new generation of competitors to contend with now with the likes of SquareSpace, Jux, Tumblr, etc., all vying to steal its users.

SquareSpace has a great visual theme editor, Jux was designed with tablets first, desktop screens second, and Tumblr has social baked in. WordPress has none of these features.

Can WordPress adapt to the challenge? Ordinarily I’d say yes, as its plugin and theme community is second to none.

But the world is in a state of flux, with the transition to touch-based mobile and tablet computing accelerating at an alarming pace.

Currently, WordPress doesn’t manage this new world very well. It’s good that Mullenweg has recognized the issue, and from the sounds of it, there really are some exciting, radically different new features coming toWordPress. But at the moment, the door is open for a new competitor to emerge and steal WordPress’s crown.

WordPress has been a tremendous success these past nine years, but it can’t afford to sit still – it’s got the future of the Web in its hands.

About Mike Evans

Mike Evans is a hyperactive Web Strategy Consultant whose skillset spans every aspect of the Web. With a PhD and patent in Web tech, he has a thriving Web business, lectures at a top UK University, and consults on Web Strategy to companies large and small.

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