For the past several months we have received inquiries about Automattic’s open source Underscores starter theme. After six months of no commits to the GitHub repository and pull requests left unanswered, users and contributors were beginning to wonder whether the project was abandoned.
After contacting Automattic to get a status update on Underscores, the company confirmed that it is still an active project but would not explain why it had gone dormant for six months.
For the past couple weeks there have been a sudden flurry of commits to the Underscores repository, the first activity since December 2016. The project has come out of hibernation and Automattic announced its intentions to renew its efforts in maintaining it.
“As we continue to push for consistency in themes and imagine what they might become with Gutenberg, we’re bringing our attention back to Underscores,” David Kennedy said. “In the last year, we’ve gotten a lot of questions from the community about Underscores and whether we had abandoned it. No way! It’s a stable project, and we enjoyed working on something new, away from it. It gave us better perspective and more ideas for the future of Underscores.”
Kennedy explained how the project’s maintainers have spent the past year and a half experimenting with Components, a starter-theme generator that was created to provide a more modular approach to theme development with reusable building blocks. The team has decided to retire Components in favor of refocusing on Underscores and applying what they learned from the experiment.
“The generator we built to piece the different components together got complex quickly,” Kennedy said. “We created a plugin to test builds locally and struggled with a seamless way to make many starter themes from one code base. The original idea is still solid: make starter themes do more by crafting them out of building blocks. But we didn’t hit the mark, so we’re retiring Components.”
Underscores Adds Ulrich Pogson as New Committer
Automattic has named Ulrich Pogson as a new committer to Underscores, the second non-Automattic contributor, following Philip Arthur Moore, to receive commit access. Pogson is a WordPress contributor and meetup organizer, a member of the Theme Review Team, and an independent voice for the Underscores community.
Philip Arthur Moore said he was excited to hear the news and thankful to Automattic for “not allowing Underscores to rot on the vine any longer.”
“It’s fair to say that my involvement with the starter theme will likely come out of a coma and find new life,” Moore said. “This is exactly what the theming community needs right now, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what we come up with and create.”
In early January, the Underscores community shared concerns regarding the project’s general lack of leadership and transparency. Contributor Sami Keijonen wrote an article with constructive ideas for how Automattic could improve Underscores development. One of his suggestions for the project was to identify leadership for moving forward, a person or group of people who could be responsible to review and discuss issues and pull requests more frequently. This would encourage more active discussion and testing of pull requests.
In the comments of this post, Pogson expressed similar concerns and said he would potentially be interested in creating a fork of Underscores.
“Personally I am also hesitant to contribute as I am not sure when the PR will be merged,” Pogson said. “I would like to see regular feedback instead of instead of PR’s being merged in a merging spree. There is also a clash between _s fulfilling Automattic needs and at the same time as the community needs.”
Now that Pogson has been named a committer, he may be able to assist the team in maintaining active discussion on issues and keeping pull requests moving.
“A large number of people use Underscores as a base for their clients and for themes on w.org,” Pogson said. “I would like to bring in things that have made me a better developer and make it easier for others getting started.”
Pogson said he is still finding his position in the team and he anticipates he will most likely be merging simple PRs in the beginning. He enjoys working on Underscores and said he regularly likes to go through opened issues and give feedback.
Sami Keijonen said he thinks the addition of Pogson as a committer is “very good news.”
“They are bringing the focus back on Underscores, and they can bring the best ideas of Components to Underscores,” Keijonen said. “Ulrich is the perfect choice as a new committer. He has been involved in the development for a long time and knows the big picture. It’s also good to see a committer from outside of Automattic. Different kinds of perspectives are always welcome.”
Keijonen said he is also optimistic that David Kennedy has taken a more active leadership role and hopes the project will continue to benefit from it.
“With all that said
_s is still Automattic’s starter theme,” Keijonen said. “It can mean more wp.com related decisions in the future. That’s one reason why many have their own fork of
_s.” He cited a few examples of companies that have active forks of Underscores to suit their particular interests, including WebDevStudios, Zeeland Family, and Digitoimisto Dude Studio.
“It will be an interesting partnership as I am the only committer who has not worked at Automattic,” Pogson said. “I think there will always be a certain clash between what Automattic needs and what the community wants, just because of the nature of the project. Many plugin authors have the same problem where they get requests that are not ideal for the other customers. There is still a bit of uncertainty but I am sure these things will be clarified in the future.”