WordPress Turns 15: a Story of Survival, Ideals and Global Domination

After its initial release 15 years ago, the website software WordPress is used by over 30% of the websites on the Internet, whereas the nearest competitor sits around 3%. It’s prospects couldn’t be better.

Did I say that? I meant to say it’s really old software, built primarily by hobbyists and amateurs from home in their pyjamas, recently voted one of the most “dreaded technologies”, competing with software that is far easier to use, and at the core of its business model is… it’s free.

How has WordPress, the blogging software-turned-content-management system, managed to not only survive, evolve, and even thrive?

Crisis and Freedom

WordPress was actually born in crisis.

Back in 2003, the dot com bubble had recently burst and the outlook for online businesses was at its worst. What’s more, there was already an eight hundred pound gorilla in the blogging space: Movable Type, which ran 70% of the blogs online at the time.

A niche, obscure piece of blogging software, called b2/cafelog, was becoming abandonware. Its author, an unemployed Frenchman who wrote it while learning how to program, had basically disappeared. Some may have wondered if he was dead. In any case, b2/cafelog certainly was dead, just like Windows 92, MSN, and so many other pieces of outdated software. It technically still worked, but with no one maintaining it, the world and technology moved on without it, as were many of its users.

Matt Mullenweg, a Political Science student, blogger and tinkerer, lamented:

My logging software hasn’t been updated for months, and the main developer has disappeared, and I can only hope that he’s okay….

Fortunately, b2/cafelog is GPL, which means that I could use the existing codebase to create a fork (new version)… Someday, right?

https://ma.tt/2003/01/the-blogging-software-dilemma/

That could have been the end of it. But one of his followers, Mike Little, offered to help.

Between exams and posting photos of his cat, Matt and Mike took b2/cafelog’s code and created a new version. One of Matt’s friends suggested a name, probably inspired by CafePress or Movable Type: WordPress.

The initial release improved on b2/cafelog mostly by bringing it up-to-date with the XHTML standard, but that was mostly it. In terms of the software, it wasn’t a huge improvement. But the software did manage to survive, and that was the key.

Unlike so much other software, b2/cafelog was what’s called “free software.” Software always comes with a license, dictating how it can be used and distributed, just like films, music, art, etc. Usually that license says who created it, forbids others from modifying it, and allows only its author to distribute it.

“Free software,” on the other hand, is special in that its license (called the GPL, or GNU Public License) dictates that you can use it for whatever you want, with whatever modifications you want, and you can even distribute the copies you make. Freely. This is why b2/cafelog was able survive even though its creator disappeared. Matt said:

because we had [the] freedoms [of the GPL], Mike Little and I were able to use the software as a foundation, giving us a two-year headstart over building something from scratch, and realize our own vision of what blogging could be.

https://ma.tt/2014/01/four-freedoms/

Schism

So although b2/cafelog was surviving as WordPress, its software license also caused a schism: there were other copies (also called “forks”) of b2/cafelog that were being created. This was fragmenting the already-small niche community. b2evolution and b2++ were created by others and had other features.

Rather than try to drive the competition into the dirt, Matt reached out to their authors and asked them to instead contribute their work into WordPress. With a lot of diplomacy, a quality for which computer programmers aren’t particularly well-known, Matt was able to eventually win over one. b2evolution became WordPress MU and was eventually merged into the main WordPress project. Its author also became a contributor to WordPress.

Another fortuitous event happened soon after: b2/cafelog’s old author reappeared online, and announced that b2/cafelog was discontinued, and that WordPress was its ordained successor. WordPress had now not only inherited b2/cafelog’s code for free, but also most of its community. But the software was still hobbyist software, used by a small niche of bloggers who liked the technical challenge of running the software themselves.

Movable Type Migration

Meanwhile, Movable Type was blogging software being developed by a team of professionals, with a business model, and a software license which gave them ultimate control over it. And they had decided it was time to cash in on their significant market lead.

Its creators, Six Apart, made a subtle but significant change to the software’s license, which meant some users had an unexpected price jump. While this was perfectly legal, and quite reasonable for the company, it was also reasonable for many of its users to start looking for alternatives. They found WordPress.

The change was announced on the tech news website SlashDot, and traffic to WordPress’ website went threw the roof. The site crashed several times because of it. WordPress lacked many of the features of Movable Type, but had one users suddenly realized was very important: it was free software. Not just in terms of price, but also in terms of its license.

I have been receiving emails all morning asking if I have any plans to charge for WordPress in the future. The answer is no, but my answer doesn’t matter. The license WordPress is distributed under —the GNU Public License—ensures that the full source is available free of charge, legally.

https://wordpress.org/news/2004/05/new-pricing-scheme/

That was the tipping point in both converting Movable Type users into WordPress users, and supercharging WordPress into a major player in the blogging space.

Democratize Publishing

Matt was a big believer in blogging. He wanted all his friends to express themselves on their own blogs, free from any restrictions that a company would place on them. His vision for WordPress was that it would “Democratize Publishing.” Another way of saying that, is that WordPress’ sought to allow everyone to:

  • publish whatever they want,
  • know what the software is doing behind-the-scenes,
  • be able to change the software,
  • be free to distribute their improved version to others

This was a fairly tall task: running your own website simply is not an easy task, especially for the less technically-inclined. WordPress doesn’t just try to make blogging easy, it tries to make setting up, customizing, and maintaining a blog easy. That would be hard for any company, and especially an ad-hoc group of volunteers.

Steps were taken to try to simplify the process of setting up WordPress, which eventually grew into WordPress’ “Famous 5 Minute Install“, and by 2005 some hosting providers (companies that rent servers) took care of installing WordPress automatically.

Speaking from my experience of setting up websites with other self-hosted software (that means software you install on a server yourself) this was revolutionary. So much so, that perhaps many users chose WordPress even though an alternative may have had more of the features they wanted.

Another early improvement in WordPress was how customizations were made. At first, users needed to dive into its code and make the changes they wanted. While this was better than other software which doesn’t allow you to change it at all, it wasn’t too much better because it was so difficult to do and so laborious to maintain. Every time WordPress came out with an update, users needed to re-apply their hacks.

The idea of “plugins” was born: separate software that ran alongside WordPress, that modified it, but wouldn’t be overwritten when WordPress was updated. This was really convenient for tech-savvy developers able to read code.

The WordPress Plugin repository also helped forward the mission to “Democratize Publishing.” It made plugins easily available to non-developers (non-programmers) because all they needed to do was download the plugin and upload it to their website. No coding necessary.

Through the subsequent years, features continued to be poured in steadily, making the goal of allowing everyone to run their own blog more attainable. Notable features included:

Making WordPress usable by everyone often had its drawbacks. Much of the old code from 15 years ago is still there because removing it could break some websites, or changing the code might make it harder to read for novice programmers. But overall, it has succeeded in making publishing, and running a website, something attainable to everyday users.

Free… but Who Pays the Bills?

While WordPress grew in popularity, so did the required time commitment. And an often-overlooked reality of free software is that, while there are many who contribute to it gladly without pay, they still need money to survive. Many, many software projects are used globally by millions and yet are maintained by only a handful of overworked people.

WordPress required more time than Matt and his fellow volunteer contributors could afford. One of WordPress’ early saviours was CNET. CNET used WordPress for several of its blogs, and so wanted to see it progress. They offered to pay Matt to maintain it so he could do it full time. So Matt quit college and began working on WordPress full time as CNET employee. But importantly, CNET hadn’t bought WordPress: the software was still free, it’s just that now there was someone to pay for its improvement, which wasn’t free.

Investing in Free Software

While Matt was in a coveted situation, being paid to work on his hobby, he saw more opportunity. While WordPress continued to “Democratize Publishing”, he was becoming more aware of some persistent problems that were really difficult to solve. The two biggest ones were: spam, and self-hosting a website. WordPress websites were getting hammered by spam comments, and hosting their own websites was still too difficult for many users. And to top it all off, just having one dedicated developer severly hampered how far WordPress could progress.

Matt then did a fairly amazing thing: somehow, he convinced a few angel investors to back his creation of a company, Automattic, focused on developing WordPress, free software. How did Matt plan to make a return on investment when WordPress was, and forever would be, free? Or how did he convince investors of his plan? This might have been a miracle.

It seems Automattic’s business model was to fuel the WordPress community, and support it with some related, optional, upgrades. For example, Automattic created a plugin called Akismet, which helps reduce spam. They also created a website called WordPress.com, which was a “hosted” way to run WordPress- meaning a way for someone to use WordPress to blog, but not need to setup and maintain their own server. Both of these were separate services which Automattic could charge money for, so it didn’t make WordPress less free at all.

Automattic managed to secure two more rounds of venture capital, and now has a team of over 500. And although Automattic is turning a profit on WordPress users, no WordPress user is obliged to use any of their services. I, after 7 years of using WordPress, still haven’t given them a dollar. WordPress is just as free as it ever was, but there are paid options for those who want them, and a well-funded company supporting WordPress’ growth.

A Community, Not Users

In the proprietary world, [people who use software] are typically called “users,” a strange term that connotes dependence and addiction. In the open source world, they’re more rightly called a community.

https://ma.tt/2014/01/four-freedoms/

Very early on, WordPress sought to build a diverse, welcoming community. And as hard as it may have been to build a business model around free software, I think creating a culture is even more difficult. WordPress has a great culture, in contrast to many environments. Often, “techies” consider themselves superior to “non-techies” because they know the jargon and technical details of software, but then “non-techies” are annoyed at “techies”‘ arrogance and social ineptitude. While these problems still exist in the WordPress community, somehow there is a lot more understanding. Being a stereotypical white, male programmer is not a requirement to participate in the WordPress community.

The earliest WordPress meetup was in January 2004, and more popped up everywhere. These were opportunities to share knowledge, and for often-isolated community members to gather and socialize.

The first WordCamp (WordPress conference) was in July 2005, and since WordCamps have spread and been organized in the hundreds all over the globe. And they usually cost $20. This allows for nearly all the WordPress community to participate in a conference. This is in stark contrast to most other software conferences, where there is usually only one held globally each year, costing thousands of dollars. And then with the introduction of WordPress TV, anyone could digitally sit in on conference sessions. All this community building helped create dedication to the software that went beyond just technical help.

The WordPress Slack channel, Support Forum, and Trac system also allow anyone to participate in helping WordPress become better, and create a reputation for themselves in the process.

There have been hundreds of people who have contributed code to the various releases of WordPress, some as employees of companies and some as freelancers or hobbyists. But the lion share is still done by WordPress’ biggest supporter: Automattic. It is really a remarkable balance between Automattic and the WordPress, the free software.

The WordPress Foundation was founded in 2009. It is a non-profit organization, like Mozilla and The Free Software Foundation, whose purpose is to encourage the support of WordPress: the software, its community, and its trademark. The trademark was actually registered by Automattic early on (hence why they own wordpress.com) but Matt pushed for it to be donated to the newly-founded organization. His reasoning was:

Automattic might not always be under my influence, so from the beginning I envisioned a structure where for-profit, non-profit, and not-just-for-profit could coexist and balance each other out. It’s important for me to know that WordPress will be protected and that the brand will continue to be a beacon of open source freedom regardless of whether any company is as benevolent as Automattic has been thus far.

https://ma.tt/2010/09/wordpress-trademark/

Perhaps this was Matt’s old naive spirit of software freedom, or maybe an investment in the ecosystem his company needed to survive. But regardless, it was another significant step in helping to assure WordPress will survive for longer than one company’s financial interest in it.

Feedback Loop

And now with such a solid base of software freedom, large and global community, and even venture capital backing, WordPress has ignited a explosion in popularity which seems to feed on itself. The feedback loop goes something like this:

  • more users, leads to
  • more plugins, themes, hosts and web agencies specializing in WordPress, which leads to
  • more brand awareness and trust, which leads to
  • more users, etc.

In other words, WordPress is popular because it’s ubiquitous… which is really a fancy way of saying “it’s popular because it’s popular.”

In my case, the company I work for, Event Espresso, continues to specialize in making event registration plugins for WordPress because it is a big market. But in turn, through our hosted solution, EventSmart, we’ve introduced a lot of people to WordPress.

A Caution

It seems to me that WordPress’ early success was due to its being free software. Afterwards, its mission to democratize publishing guided its development so it appealed to a very wide range of users, and venture capital funding helped keep it alive and improving. But now WordPress’ success is a self-feedback loop which could also be described as a bubble… and someday that bubble may burst.

For example, many WordPress users don’t know what free software is. They may be easily enticed by restrictive, but easier-to-use, software. Then someday further down the road, we’ll have a repeat of the Movable Type situation, where they’ll suddenly become aware that proprietary software is a sandy foundation for a business.

I think the WordPress community needs to hold more dearly to the freedom of the GPL, and internalize the mission to democratize publishing.

Celebrate the Successes

To me, WordPress’ story is inspiring. The ideals of freedom and inclusion won out over restriction and exclusivity. Sure, people have taken advantage of WordPress’ freedom and trust, but they haven’t destroyed it. How has WordPress survived the years of naysayers, hackers, and GPL abusers? Matt said this:

Though the freedom intrinsic in the GPL has allowed people to abuse WordPress it has allowed even more people to do amazing things and over time the good far, far outweighs the bad…

how do you maximize the effect of the good[?]

Celebrate the successes.

Talk, connect, promote, and embrace the people who are creating things on top of your creation.

Provide a way for people to choose to help you, and try to remove as much friction from that process as possible.

[People will] want to give something back.

https://ma.tt/2007/07/price-of-freedom/

Maybe that’s idealistic and naive, and maybe it wouldn’t work in the real world. One might think endeavors like that would never survive.

Then again, 15 years and 30% of the Internet indicate it has worked pretty well so far.

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