New Beginning For WordPress - Or the End?
What is Gutenberg?
WordPress is looking to replace the current content editor with a new way of editing content called Gutenberg (aka WordPress v5.0), named after Johannes Gutenberg, who invented a printing press with movable type more than 500 years ago. WordPress is looking to introduce Gutenberg in reaction to competition from site/page builders like Wix and Squarespace.
The big difference from the current editor is that it will use a block-based system to build up content. Every heading, paragraph, image, list, and other content you add will be a block. Each block will have unique properties and settings.
The advantage of this is its great flexibility and repeatability. When you create content, you can work with and customise each block. You can move the blocks around, and even make individual blocks reusable so you can build them once and use them in different locations and different views.
This will replace the concept of posts and pages. A post is a specific piece of content that has a pre-configured header, sidebar, and footer. The use of blocks will mean a more modular approach where views are built using templates. This means the content creator can pick and choose what pieces go into each view and how they are laid out. Even the WordPress theme as we know is likely to be replaced by something else.
This is intended to reduce the visual difference between how content is crafted in the admin part of WordPress and how it's rendered on the frontend. It also opens up the possibility of unifying all the different parts of the site building process, like the customiser and widgets.
One Step Forward...
So, Gutenberg should be a significant step forward for WordPress however, there is a problem.
WordPress has always been proud of its backwards compatibility and it has endeavoured to maintain compatibility with older versions of WordPress so that they do not break the platform in terms of the core and plugins. They have always followed a "design for the majority" philosophy, which argues that the "average WordPress user simply wants to be able to write without problems or interruption." New versions have always coped with content produced using older versions. The advantage of such a system is that their users have stayed with them because upgrading has not meant abandoning or having to reproduce the content they had already created with WordPress.
The downside of backwards compatibility is that the source code has become large and outdated. In fact, WordPress can still run on a version of a programming language (PHP v5.2.4) that is so old it has not been supported since 2011!
Gutenberg is a departure from the 'backwards compatibility' philosophy in that it's expected to break many sites. It's likely that once it's incorporated into the source code, some users will experience problems the next time they try to edit a page or post.
At the moment WordPress is receiving a number of reviews some of which praise the plugin, more than half of which are complaints and pleas from WordPress website owners due to the "test" Gutenberg plugin breaking their site or causing an issue (at the time of writing this article there were 245 (1 star ratings) to 170 (5 star ratings).
Checking back just over a month later (Aug 8) and with the release of WordPress v4.9.8 which contains an invite to "Test the new editor today", or the option to install the Classic plugin; there are now 468 (1 star ratings) to 213 (5 star ratings).
According to Amazon's Alexa about 30% of the top 10 million websites in the world are built using WordPress and a market share of about 60% of sites using a CMS. These sites will have a range of different owners. Some of them will be individuals who have set up their websites, but the majority will be developers, freelancers and agencies who have used WordPress to build sites in the past, currently manage WordPress sites, and may intend to use WordPress for every site they create in the future.
Making websites built pre WordPress 5.0 may require work to make them Gutenberg compatible which might come at a cost. It's possible many sites will be neglected, overlooked and remain broken.
Will Developers Remain Loyal?
It seems almost certain that implementing Gutenberg will reduce the number of developers and programmers able to contribute to it without first going through a steep learning curve. Plugin developers will be under pressure to learn, adapt, and get their plugins ready in a short timescale.
Many small and individual developers probably won't have the time, inclination or skills to make their plugins compatible with Gutenberg. It's possible that many plugins broken by Gutenberg simply won't be fixed. This will have a detrimental effect on the user experience and ironically may drive people away from WordPress.
Some developers have already started building sites with alternatives to WordPress. They argue that their clients don't care what is used to build their sites. They just want working websites that load fast and allow them to edit content if they have to.
The Future Of WordPress?
If you are using WordPress on a new site where backwards compatibility is not an issue, Gutenberg is going to be a powerful feature that could elevate WordPress above its competitors even further and drive their market share even higher. However, Gutenberg could also potentially have a negative impact on current users with far-reaching consequences.
There is an argument that the best way for WordPress to survive is to offer the WordPress core with and without Gutenberg, or to offer Gutenberg as a separate plugin which users can choose to install. This will inevitably mean the two versions will diverge, those wanting backwards compatibility using one version and those happy to work with Gutenberg using the other.
WordPress has also been looking at other solutions, including using a plugin to disable Gutenberg, and software that automatically detects whether to load Gutenberg or not. It's not yet clear which solution the company is planning to implement.
Gutenberg is due to be included in the next version of WordPress (v5.0), which was expected to be released during the first half of 2018 and is now expected in the next couple of months. Only time will tell!
Gutenberg is available as a plugin which can be used for testing compatibility, however it's important to note that Gutenberg is in a state of flux, it is still being developed with updates being made weekly, so it may change considerably before the final version becomes available. Only a couple of weeks ago, in response to a number of reviews, the plugin author stated "How Gutenberg will be merged is yet to be decided" and "It's important to note that right now what happens during 5.0 isn't set".