State of the Word 2016: Mullenweg Pushes Calypso as Future of WordPress’ Interface, Proposes Major Changes to Release Cycle

photo credit: WordCamp US organizing team
photo credit: WordCamp US organizing team

Philadelphia welcomed 1,923 attendees to WordCamp US this weekend with an additional 2,028 enthusiasts watching via live stream. Matt Mullenweg delivered his 11th annual State of the Word address to a rapt audience ready to celebrate WordPress’ progress over the past year and hear the project leader’s vision for 2017.

He began by thanking sponsors and volunteers who made the event possible by covering the bulk of the $516 actual cost per person. Mullenweg said sponsors cover roughly 85-95% of the cost of WordCamps worldwide. In 2016, the events sold a total 36,000 tickets, with costs subsidized by more than 1,000 sponsors.

Mullenweg said meetups are the leading indicator for WordCamps and these events have had the fastest growth the community has seen in five or six years. More than 62,566 people attended a local meetup in 58 countries and roughly one third of those were new members.

WordPress Foundation to Create WordPress Community Support Subsidiary

In order to better accommodate the extraordinary growth of the global community, the WordPress Foundation will be restructuring its management of WordCamps. In 2016 the Foundation took in an estimated $4.3 million, up from $2.8 million in 2015, with 99.9% of those funds related to WordCamps. Mullenweg announced that the 501c nonprofit will move WordCamps to its own company, WordPress Community Support, forming a PBC (Public Benefit Corporation) that is fully owned by the Foundation.

He explained that if certain things happened at WordCamps it could endanger the overall Foundation, so WordCamps will now be managed under their own entity where the events will have a little more flexibility in how they do things. The Foundation plans to support some like-minded nonprofits that are aligned with the overall education mission of the organization, including Hack the Hood, Internet Archive, and Black Girls Code. In 2017 the Foundation will also begin promoting hackathons to help nonprofits and NGO’s.

Internationalization is Driving an Increase in Plugin Usage

Mullenweg shared a few stats about the plugin directory, which will soon be launching a new design with revamped search functionality. This year has seen a 20% increase in active plugin usage and a 34% increase in plugin downloads totaling 1.48 billion, which Mullenweg attributed to a spike in internationalization efforts over the past year. The number of translation contributors has grown from 5,000 in April 2015 to 17,000 as of November 2016.

This year there were 1,598 plugins with language packs (up from 314 last year) and 1224 themes with language packs (up from 641 last year). Mullenweg noted that 2/3 of the world speaks one of 12 languages with native fluency and that WordPress covers all of these and many more. In fact, the 4.6 release shipped with support for 50 available languages. WordPress’ top 10 plugins are now 82% complete in the top 12 languages.

Mullenweg Continues to Push Calypso as the Future of the WordPress Interface

During the 2015 State of the Word, Mullenweg gave attendees a homework assignment to “learn JavaScript deeply” and promised to submit a JavaScript patch before 4.7 came out. He submitted his first pull request to Calypso yesterday, Automattic’s from-scratch rewrite of WP admin using Node and React.

WordPress.com users have widely adopted the new interface for publishing. Mullenweg shared statistics showing that 68% of posts went through Calypso since its launch, 17% via mobile, and 15% through the traditional wp-admin. Mobile app and mobile browser usage are also up. “We now need to start thinking about mobile devices as the primary way people are going to interact with WordPress in the future,” Mullenweg said.

From the time it launched, Mullenweg has said that Calypso, or something like it, would be the future of the WordPress interface. He reiterated this in his 2016 address and has committed some of Automattic’s JavaScript developers from the Calypso team to contribute full-time to core.

If Calypso has a chance at becoming a promising replacement for the WordPress admin, its creators will need to broaden its interoperability with the WordPress plugin ecosystem. Mullenweg announced that Calypso is now plugin aware and is open to plugins with over 1M active sites.

The next step on Calypso’s roadmap is to bring in support for Automattic’s plugins – WooCommerce, Akismet, Jetpack, and VaultPress. Mullenweg said the big focus for 2017 is to make plugins Calypso-aware, starting with a handful of the most popular ones before opening it up to all plugins.

“The hope is that Calypso, or something like it, is actually what becomes the interface that drives WordPress,” Mullenweg said. Since no one is currently building anything like Calypso and targeting core, it looks like the technology behind WordPress.com will be driving the evolution of WordPress in 2017.

If Mullenweg’s goal is to make Calypso the primary publishing engine for core WordPress, one of the major challenges will be getting plugin developers on board with building compatibility for what is currently an Automattic product. What are the implications of contributing to greater Calypso adoption? If core brings in the Calypso interface in the future, would Automattic push to include its Reader and other WordPress.com functionality, as it has in the mobile apps? These are questions developers will need to weigh when considering whether to pursue a more application-type experience via the Calypso interface.

WordPress Recommends Hosts Offering PHP 7+ and HTTPS by Default

WordPress core continues to update its recommendations and requirements with the help of hosts who are adopting the latest technologies. The official recommendation for WordPress hosting is now PHP 7 or higher. After WordPress.com switched to be 100% on PHP 7, Mullenweg said the network’s performance doubled and CPU load fell in half. Just 4% of self-hosted sites are on PHP 7, but the new recommendation should help move more hosts towards getting their customers updated.

Beginning in 2017, WordPress will have progressive enhancement for certain features that are only available for encrypted sites. Mullenweg announced that WordPress.org is now tracking HTTPS adoption. So far 11.45% of active WordPress websites are on HTTPS and the project will no longer recommend hosts that do not offer it by default. “We want to bring more of the web to be secure, which is especially important in the post-Snowden era,” he said.

Trying New Things: Major Changes Coming to WordPress’ Core Release Cycle

WordPress 4.7 release lead Helen Hou-Sandí joined Mullenweg on stage to highlight a few of the features and improvements that will be coming in the official release on Tuesday. The release is arguably one of the most exciting and successful updates for WordPress in some time, but Mullenweg has a new strategy for core development in 2017.

“We’re at a junction for WordPress where what got us here wont get us there,” Mullenweg said, after highlighting how the software’s market share has grown from 13.1% to 27.2% in the past five years.

Mullenweg proposed a new structure for WordPress releases where design and user testing will lead the way. “I’m putting back on the ‘product lead’ hat for 2017,” he said. The upcoming year will have no set release schedule. Mullenweg is upending WordPress’ predictable release cycle in favor of tackling some larger items on the to-do list. He said the focus will be on performance and fixes to existing functionality in three main focus areas: WP REST API, the Editor, and the Customizer.

Mullenweg said he is particularly interested in getting first-party usage of the REST API in the admin, in hopes of having it evolve to something the project can use for the next decade. If it doesn’t, he said core will consider bringing it back into a plugin specifically for developers.

Mullenweg said he feels the editor does not represent the core of WordPress publishing, a sentiment that many users agree with. He hopes to steer it toward a more block-based approach that unifies widgets and includes an interface for shortcodes.

Mullenweg’s vision for the Customizer is to see all aspects of WordPress become more instant and provide the same interface and UI affordances as the editor. He announced that Ephox, the company behind TinyMCE, has agreed to work with the project to improve the core editing experience.

Shifting from a time-based release cycle to one that is more project-based is a major departure from WordPress’ previous release philosophy of “Deadlines are not arbitrary.” The project’s philosophy page identifies the practice of delaying releases for one more feature as a “rabbit hole” that has been tested and found to be unpleasant. The new approach to core development makes no guarantee that WordPress will have any releases in 2017.

If the experiment is not a success, the project’s days of frequent and fast iteration may be over for awhile. Mullenweg is willing to risk it in hopes of being able to provide more product-based leadership that will distinguish WordPress from its proprietary competitors.

“I think we’re trying to counter stagnation,” Mullenweg said when asked about the new approach to releases in the Q&A segment. “Even though we’ve had lots of releases, certain parts of WordPress have stagnated and haven’t made the leaps that they could.” He suggested that being part of a feature plugin team will give developers a way to be involved in more active releases and continue to build momentum for eventual inclusion of their projects in core.

Mullenweg plans to identify a tech lead and a design lead and will be working with them as the overall product lead. He envisions that when one area of WordPress gets to the point where the software can ship significant user-facing improvements, a release will be born.

“We’re at the point now where the steps WordPress needs to take are more significant to get the other 73% of the web it doesn’t have yet,” Mullenweg said.

In a return to WordPress’ poetic roots, he concluded by reading a poem called Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander.

The video of the State of the Word address will soon be available on WordPress’ new YouTube channel.

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