Matt Mullenweg on Ensuring the Future of WordPress

Photo by Vladimir Kaladan Petkov
Photo by Vladimir Kaladan Petkov

Matt Mullenweg made waves this past weekend during his Q&A session at WordCamp Europe when he strongly advocated the importance of companies contributing back to WordPress. He offered a rule of thumb for companies that benefit from the software and want to invest in the future of WordPress:

I think a good rule of thumb that will scale with the community as it continues to grow is that organizations that want to grow the WordPress pie (and not just their piece of it) should dedicate 5% of their people to working on something to do with core — be it development, documentation, security, support forums, theme reviews, training, testing, translation or whatever it might be that helps move WordPress mission forward.

He cites the tragedy of the commons as an example fate that he hopes WordPress can avoid.

The 5% statement was instantly controversial, sparking a number of heated discussions on blogs, news sites, and Twitter. Some took exception to the wording of his suggestion, as the use of “should” implies a moral obligation, complicated further by the fact that the statement originates from a person in a position of power, who many perceive as the person most likely to benefit from increased contributions.

Granted, Mullenweg is at the helm of what is undeniably the most successful WordPress-based company in operation. Automattic is one of many companies that are entirely reliant on this software for their continued existence. Though all may not benefit equally from contribution, it does not negate the fact that the WordPress project is 100% dependent on contribution and would not exist without it. If we want to see it grow, there must be continued contribution, and in the end it doesn’t matter if that motivation is practical or ideological.

Open source businesses are free to act on Mullenweg’s suggestion of 5% contribution or to throw it out entirely. The issue cuts close to home. It’s a personal question of philosophy as much as it is a business consideration.

For Mullenweg, the suggestion of a 5% contribution originates out of a desire to ensure the future of WordPress. The project started out much like your average garage band. Mullenweg wanted a place to blog and post photos, so with the help of a handful of contributors, WordPress was born. Since the very early days, he has been unwavering when it comes to protecting user freedoms with the GPL and established the project’s mission to democratize publishing through open source software.

Before you decide to contribute, it’s a good idea to consider the future of WordPress. Where does Matt see the project going? Do you want to be a part of taking it there? I had the opportunity to speak with him at WordCamp Europe to press further into his vision of WordPress for the next decade.

Mobile

You’ve probably heard it before: mobile is a big part of the future of WordPress. Mullenweg emphasizes this in nearly every recent interview I’ve read and Automattic is aggressively hiring mobile developers. For many internet users, their mobile device is the only way they access the web. This is particularly true for users in countries like China and India. If WordPress is to gain penetration in these geographical regions, it must provide a solid mobile experience.

This puts the WordPress mobile apps in a singular place of influence, which results in a bit of controversy at the moment. Currently, the apps are packed full of WordPress.com features that provide functionality beyond the core publishing experience. Many self-hosted WordPress users find the Reader in particular to be irrelevant.

Mullenweg explained Automattic’s approach to the mobile apps:

The goal with the mobile apps is first and foremost to get as many mobile app users as possible, because I think that ensures WordPress development for years to come. They are open source projects and people can contribute code to make them do a lot of different things. The team is focused on developing the things that will be most compelling to people on the mobile side. That’s notifications, stats, and the reader.

Since the apps are open source, developers can fork them and remove unwanted features if they want to. However, this seems a bit counterintuitive for self-hosted WordPress users who don’t use WordPress.com features. The recent video ad produced by Automattic does not put the spotlight on the Reader but rather features the mobile apps in use for publishing media. Won’t people be using the publishing features more often than the Reader? Mullenweg doesn’t think so.

By definition, people read more than they write. You read far more than you write. The average blogger doesn’t post every day. They read blogs every day. In fact, they read WordPress blogs every day, over a billion per month. By connecting more of those to the active users with this thing we call WordPress, I think it opens the door for more publishing in the future, which is really exciting.

The apps are technically open source. If there’s a strong contingency of developers who don’t agree with the preeminence of WordPress.com’s Reader in the app, they can work to change that through contribution. The reality is that mobile developers are few and far between. At the moment, Automattic drives nearly 100% of the contribution on the apps and its agenda is unrivaled. These apps wouldn’t exist without the company’s contributions.

I asked Mullenweg if other contributing commercial entities are free to push their own features through the official mobile apps. “Yeah they could,” he said, but followed it up with more insight on what he believes to be Automattic’s role in the mobile apps:

I think that in many ways, Automattic is a shepherd. When you type in WordPress into a search engine, we’re the thing that pops up first. We’re the gateway drug, the thing that brings in the billions of people who don’t use WordPress yet. That’s our responsibility.

He believes that, as more users easily gain access through WordPress.com, it will mean a greater number of those who transition to self-hosted sites, as people graduate from the service. “We’ll even help them move on,” he said. Obviously, you cannot simply download PHP files to your phone and get started.

“We want you to be able to start a blog and engage with the world of blogging 100% from the mobile device,” he said. “That requires WordPress.com and Jetpack features. Will it forever? Maybe not, but, as an idealist in a practical world, while that is not what I’d choose as a perfect solution – I’d love for you to be able to run WordPress on your phone and the world could access it, but that’s not reality today.”

So why doesn’t Automattic simply rename the apps to reflect the fact that the it heavily features WordPress.com? “We could rename it to WordPress.com App, but then there would be no WordPress app.” Automattic only has 15 mobile engineers at present and there aren’t many on the outside lining up to contribute to the open source apps. For Mullenweg, the ease of starting a free blog via the app is something that will help to ensure the future of WordPress:

It’s difficult to build an open source thing on a closed source platform. I see it as a gateway drug and it gives people more options down the road. If we don’t do anything on mobile, five years from now, when everyone is only using mobile devices, they will all have Squarespace’s or Weebly’s. WordPress is still around but it just doesn’t matter. This allows us to matter five years from now.

Mullenweg sees the apps as an easy onramp to the WordPress software in general, but recognizes that the method isn’t the most ideal situation for everyone. “The direction we’re moving is to make them more modular, so people can fork the apps more easily in the future,” he said. “If you talk to anyone on the mobile team, you will find a passion for open source.” This means that there’s the potential for the focus of the app’s development to change in the future.

Internationalization and Global Adoption

Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian WP communities with @photomatt @nacin at #WCEU - photo credit: Konstantin Tatar
Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian WP communities with @photomatt @nacin at #WCEU – photo credit: Konstantin Tatar

WordCamp Europe is unique in that it brings together many WordPress users whose primary language is not English. Mullenweg could not hide his excitement about the recent and upcoming changes related to internationalization. “If WordPress is representative of the world, then English should be a minority of the interactions, contributions and even plugins,” he said, and remarked further on how we’re still in the old mindset of taking English plugins and themes and then translating them into another language.

Personally, I am far and away most excited about the internationalization improvements, because the fact that WordPress has that many users at all in these other languages where there’s not very much documentation, no plugins, very few themes, it’s kind of amazing. Basically we have lots of usage in other countries but it’s primarily built by English-speaking people. So when that starts to change to where you can, for example, login to your dashboard in Spanish, installation, plugins and themes in Spanish, I think it could substantially change WordPress’ adoption rate.

He believes that internationalization improvements will be key to improving WordPress’ global adoption and may perhaps be more of an influential factor than the software’s incremental improvement on features:

Honestly, incremental features in WordPress probably aren’t going to change its adoption rate (the number of people starting a WP blog every day). At this point, that’s primarily driven by our reputation and existing users. What will substantively change that is if WordPress opens up to vastly more audiences than it was before, be that platforms, languages, or cost. At the moment WordPress.com is free but it’s not fully available to all languages.

WordPress already receives many contributions from contributors who do not speak English as their first language. Mullenweg believes it may be quite a ways down the road from now before WordPress core development requires translators to effectively incorporate contributions from what may someday be a larger contingency of non-English speaking lead developers.

“Maybe there’s a full-time translator working with Nacin,” he commented, imagining how internationalization could change the project in the future. With WordPress fully opened up to more languages, the software has the potential to improve at an exponentially faster rate than it does now. It’s an exciting prospect to consider.

The Value of Experimentation

In his quest to ensure the future of WordPress, Mullenweg often looks outside of the project for inspiration. He’s devoted a team at Automattic to experimenting with non-WordPress technologies. This was the team that created the Selfies app, released earlier this year.

selfies

The app wasn’t built on WordPress and didn’t appear to be as polished as other Automattic products. I asked Mullenweg why they chose to release the app in its unpolished state. He highlighted the importance of experimentation:

One thing that’s difficult in a company, as it grows, is to not just work on the thing that’s most successful. WordPress, WordPress.com, Jetpack, these are ridiculously successful by any measure. It would be very easy for all 272 people at Automattic to only work on that. One of the things we did this year is create a team that is almost like our version of Google X, except we’re not going to space. As a smaller company our ambitions are a little more modest, but we do want that sense of experimentation, and that it’s ok to release something that’s not 100% polished.

This further clarifies the release of the Selfies app, which the team presented as an accident wherein the planned Gravatar App morphed into Selfies. “There’s no one working on a Gravatar app right now,” Mullenweg said, confirming that the idea was considered and then scrapped. What they learned in the process was more valuable than delivering on the original idea.

Usage is oxygen for ideas, right? The things that we know and learn by releasing stuff, we never could have learned otherwise, so look for more of that. That team has lots of things planned – their charter is specifically not to do things that integrate with WordPress. I’d love for it to be a much larger team, actually.

This spirit of experimentation is what sets Automattic apart from many other companies that simply focus on their successful products. Perhaps it will someday translate into technology that can work alongside WordPress, especially when the software adopts more modern APIs.

The Mission

In recent press, Automattic has received considerable attention due to the fact that the company doesn’t work from one centralized office. The idea is brand new to those who have only experienced more traditional workplaces. I asked Mullenweg what he believes is truly unique about his company. He cited a few things, such as the hiring process, the reliability of WordPress.com’s technical architecture, the dedication to experimentation. But in the end, for him, everything loops back around to the mission of democratizing publishing.

I don’t think there’s anything that doesn’t exist in any other company. Obviously we’re really deeply involved with WordPress. So is 10up and many other WP consultancies. We do a ton of open source but so does Canonical, Acquia, Redhat, and everyone else. I think it’s just the combination of all of these things, the truly distributed nature, and the mission, which isn’t just about bottom lines. It has an altruistic aspect as well.

Mullenweg’s Five for the Future post compelling open source companies to strive to contribute 5% back to the core software is a hotly debated topic in the WordPress ecosystem right now. Those who do not share the same practical convictions or altruistic ideals feel that the idea comes with an implication of people “working for free.” The folks at Automattic are hoping to lead the way in proving that commercial success can go hand-in-hand with an altruistic mission. For Mullenweg, it’s part of a larger vision and an unwavering commitment to ensure the future of WordPress for all.

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