WordPress needs to start thinking like a platform again

Market share is a false idol. The goal of a platform isn't just to take a larger slice of the pie, it's to grow the entire pie.

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One of the big picture goals for WordPress, popularized and repeated by Matt Mullenweg, is to be the “operating system of the web.” Despite sounding like an idealistic throwaway or an example of marketing word salad, I can actually stand behind this concept. It resonates with my experiences even more than the abstract goal of “democratizing publishing.” Platforms are real and crucial in the internet age, and WordPress is already one of the most important ones out there. The project leadership needs to lean into this operating system/platform view of WordPress.

The most successful operating systems have been platforms for other developers wrapped in a user-friendly user-interface. iOS, for example, began to shine once we saw the App Store open up. It’s hard to imagine mobile devices being so ubiquitous without third-party tools like social networking and messaging. And the more powerful those developer APIs are, the better the third-party tools can be, and the more the ecosystem can grow. Similarly, it was the WP REST API (and alternative solutions like WPGraphQL) that allowed WordPress to be a part of the “headless” website game. Without those sorts of developer APIs enabling innovation in the headless space, we wouldn’t have things like Strattic or Atlas from WP-Engine already being adopted by the community.

Stratechery’s Ben Thompson (oddly a former Automattic employee) has written extensively about platforms and has even offered a few key metrics for what makes one. First, he shares the quote from Bill Gates: “A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it exceeds the value of the company that creates it.” And second, the idea that “platforms are powerful because they facilitate a relationship between 3rd-party suppliers and end users”. And yet, most of Thompson’s writing in this space has been on competitors like Shopify rather than WooCommerce, or Substack rather than WordPress. WordPress is a successful platform, and our community is proof of that. But sometimes platforms lose track of what makes them useful in the first place.

Any recent discussions about WordPress market share that ignore this are always going to miss the point just a little bit. The goal of a platform isn’t just to take a larger slice of the pie, it’s to grow the entire pie. This is probably more in line with what Alex Denning, a MasterWP OG, sees when he focuses on search volume over market share:

Market share is one mechanism for understanding a CMS’ popularity. Pure market share gives us no insight into how those sites are used, though. 

Alex Denning

Tangent: My favorite thing about cultural conversations like these is the chance for everyone to pin their own personal grievances onto the conversation. My current theory is that WordPress market share is falling because WooCommerce extensions are being priced by the same people who sell insulin and prescription drugs in America. My second theory has to do with Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, and probably lizard people. Just kidding. It’s about Gutenberg.

Back to platforms. Ultimately, Alex is right on the money here:

At some point we decided that WordPress powering every website on the internet was unequivocally a good thing, and nobody is asking why this is a good idea.

Alex Denning

I actually think 40 – 50% market share is a healthy place to land. Read the rest of his piece for a thoughtful counterpoint to Joost’s original post about these metrics. The point is that sometimes we fall back on confirmation bias when looking at statistics. There’s a general sense in the community that WordPress is losing its way or the community is being “torn apart”, so it’s easy to jump on the data that confirms this belief. And the tech industry makes this worse because of our constant need for change: the ‘hot new thing’ often doesn’t last as long as we’d like (remember Angular, Grunt, Bower?) and we’re worried our technology stack may be the next one to go.

It is easy to blame the heavy focus on Gutenberg and the fact that FSE is now years behind its projected (yet invisible) roadmap for any problems. Where else would that blame go? As others have pointed out, much of the rest of WordPress has languished while focus has been almost solely on block editing for the better part of a decade. Every major release for the last year has basically been about Full Site Editing, so where else would our attention be?

In some ways, Full Site Editing feels like Google Plus or Apple’s Ping. In those cases, an extremely solid platform saw a bunch of competitors in a specific industry (like social networking) making money on their platform, so they decided to dip their toes in the waters and compete with them. But these tangents typically fail because they don’t align with the goals of the platform itself: build a user-friendly UI and a solid base of APIs that enable third-party developers to build their own solutions to specific problems (and then take 30% of revenue, duh).

I’m not mad that we’ve taken a five year detour into page building in WordPress core. I think innovation is better than stagnation, and there was a lot of good that came out of it. For writing basic HTML (like this blog post), the block editor is infinitely more capable and enjoyable than the classic editor. It’s probably better than Medium and Substack, too. But there’s a reason that Elementor (yes, Elementor!) continues to grow while block editing and FSE editing still feels like beta software.

The counter argument here is that the block editor will itself become a platform, but in my mind, it’s just way too opinionated to fit that bill. The block editor is a feature, and it’s fairly extendable, but it really is not a platform. If you don’t believe me, ask the WooCommerce team why their custom post types still use the classic editor after five years.

To return to the iOS analogy, what makes Apple Music stay innovative is the fact that we can load Spotify on the same device if we want. The open nature of the platform is what keeps it competitive. For many of us in basic website development, we can’t buy into a locked-in system that has no roadmap, is years behind its competitors, and will probably just sherlock our features anyway.

Full Site Editing would be an amazing feature plugin, like BuddyPress or BBPress. It would be a great open source alternative to paid page builders. But have any of the recent changes to the widget screen or the new navigation blocks made them easier for developers to build on top of? Not that I can see.

Instead of setting our sites on metrics like market share, let’s get back to focusing on user experiences, on developer empowerment, on ecosystem value being created, and on… fine… democratizing publishing.

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Brian is the Technology Director at Understrap and Howard Development & Consulting. Located in Southern California, Brian is a former college instructor and full-stack developer who brings his unique academic perspective to Understrap Academy. Brian is a graduate of California State Polytechnic University Pomona and California State University Fullerton. His work has included projects for Harvard University, The World Bank, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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