Why Gutenberg?

At WordCamp Europe 2017, Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of the WordPress open source project, announced that Gutenberg was available as a plugin for testing. In the past few weeks, members of the community have published their experiences with the new editor. Some of the reviews I’ve read so far include:

There is one review in particular that has piqued my interest. Adrian Roselli not only shares his first impressions of Gutenberg, but also asks a couple of important questions and raises some interesting points:

When I first heard about Gutenberg, I asked some people at WordCamp London and later at WordCamp Europe who had requested it. Remembering that WordCamp is open source, I then re-jiggered my question and asked what problem it was trying to solve.

Of the people I asked, I do not know who was a contributor. The answer I overwhelmingly got back was that Matt wanted it.

There are two things that concern me about Roselli’s statement. The first is that I have a few quirks with the current editor but I don’t often use short codes, custom HTML, or use custom embed codes. Thinking about what problems Gutenberg solves is somewhat perplexing if they’re not problems I encounter on a regular basis.

The second is that people at WordCamps are answering the question by saying Mullenweg wants it in core. Roselli states that he doesn’t know if the people answering the question are contributors or not. Because Mullenweg wants something in core should never be the primary reason it’s added.

It’s easy to see how one could come up with this answer. Earlier this year, Mullenweg took over core development as the project lead, and assigned Automattic employees Matias Ventura and Joen Asmussen to lead the development of Gutenberg. As project lead, Mullenweg can bypass the concensus-driven model, and do what he thinks is best for the project without going through a committee.

In the 2016 State of the Word, Mullenweg announced that the Editor would be one of three core focuses for 2017. In January of this year, the team published a technical overview of what the new editor would encompass. A month later, the team published an initial prototype of a block-based editor.

The team is moving rapidly with plans to ship Gutenberg possibly in time for WordPress 5.0 expected later this year or early next. If all of the work thus far had to go through a committee, it’s likely Gutenberg development wouldn’t be where it’s at.

Perhaps not enough people understand the ‘Why’ behind the project. Who can blame them? Outside of specifying that it will help WordPress leapfrog its competitors, there’s not a lot of information on official channels that concretely explains and supports the idea that Gutenberg is necessary for millions of users.

Mullenweg has a good track record of doing what’s best for the project. However, in the case of revamping the editor, which will radically change how everyone will create content in WordPress, it’s concerning that more user research, personas, usage data, etc. is not available to indicate such a major shift was warranted. There was an Editor survey published earlier this year but the results were not representative of WordPress’ global user base.

“A lot of assertions on ease of use are made on the Gutenberg plugin page, with nothing to back them up,” Roselli said.

Gutenberg is an exciting, ambitious project, but one that I’m not entirely sure is necessary. If WordPress core is going to fundamentally change the way I create content without giving me a choice, I want as much information and user research data as possible to convince me that it’s the better option.

It may seem odd that these questions and concerns are being raised six months into the project but at the same time, development has moved so fast, it feels like the opportunity to have them addressed at the beginning was missed.

Revamping the editor experience is a massive undertaking and, six months in, it’s not better than the editor I use today. I wrote this post in Gutenberg and it was a cumbersome, frustrating experience. It will need to address a lot of issues if it’s going to beat the current WordPress editor, let alone leapfrog its competitors. However, the team is making good progress on a weekly basis.

Gutenberg needs as many testers as possible if it’s going to be the best editor in its class. For instructions on how and what to test, read the Gutenberg testing guide on the Make WordPress Testing site.

24 Comments


  1. Reminds me this – “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”

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    1. In my case it reminds me “a lot of times, people are certain what they DON’T want until you show it to them, and they see what a load of rubbish the whole hype is”

      To keep everyone happy, we should at the very least have the choice of using either editor, and this thing it’s not just an editor, it’s a whole new way of configuring the editing screens. Some will love, some will hate it. We should have the freedom to choose which way to go.

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  2. My sense is Gutenberg tries to solve at least 3-4 obvious issues:

    – beauty of UI
    – ease of use
    – the ability to create more complicated page layouts without knowing code (the same type of problem that page builders are currently solving)
    – making extensions to the editor by themes or plugins more consistent at both code and interface levels

    How well it does these things can be debated. Without any data to back it up, my sense it will do several of those things fairly well.


    I continue to believe, however, that the biggest looming potential calamity with Gutenberg will come from the fact that there appears to be very little concern for backwards compatibility or for the staggering variety of content that is created by WordPress users. They just haven’t anticipated anything other than the most basic kind of content.

    If Gutenberg is rolled in anything like its current form – which appears to be the intent, especially if there are considerations for a 2017 release – it will likely break millions of WordPress pages (those generated with page builders, tinymce-plugin content, custom post types, custom editing interfaces, etc, etc), and thousands of WordPress plugins and themes. The resulting chaos and uproar, as well as the damage done to perceived stability of the platform, could easily overwhelm any benefits.

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    1. This.
      Breaking existing post content and various plug-in generated content is a def no-go show stopper.

      If forced on us, Gutenberg NEEDS to be able to work with, read, and convert (if needed) existing content as well as work with what ever plugins and theme mods the WP user has.

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  3. I have been using WordPress for a lot of years. I have just started looking at the Gutenberg plugin.

    I may just be set in my ways but… I have never liked the ‘distraction free editing’ screens but if I accidentally ended up there I could get back to the old standard editor.

    Gutenberg strikes me as part of the old Mac concept that if you leave things out and make it all look flat it will make it easy to use. It also seems like cosmetic change for change sake. As an option it somewhat makes sense given that the traditional editor was also available.
    As a total replacement, I have my doubts but will be waiting to see what is added and revised as the work on it continues.

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  4. There are a number of very good page builders for WordPress. These builders have evolved over time, with a ton of user feedback.

    They are successful because they do a good job and allow developers to build sites quickly, the way they want.

    I don’t entirely understand why WordPress core is choosing a completely different approach, without even considering to use/build something like developers show they want.

    A few years ago, WordPress adopted the menu system from WooThemes, which is now our standard WordPress menu. Why not do the same for the editor?

    I’m pretty sure that all the developers of the popular page builders would go out of their way to support the WordPress core in including/rebuilding a new editor.

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    1. @Amir, my understanding is that members of the Beaver Builder team are sharing some of the “lessons learned” with the Guttenberg team. So that is a positive thing.

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  5. Like Jeff implies, I’m wondering what happened to “just write”? For those who are blogging, we still need a simple post editor that’s not block-based. I use Divi with it’s page builder on over 40 client sites, but we still just use the regular old WP post editor for writing and publishing posts. If Gutenberg is really needed and presents a true improvement, great. But it needs a “just write” mode with simple formatting and media insertion tools like the current TinyMCE editor and Calypso have (preferably with markdown). Just make sure there’s something simple and easy like that, please.

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    1. I’m wondering what happened to “just write”?

      This is one of my top concerns and feels like it is getting lost quickly.

      In the planning stages for the editor, one of the tests people often talked about was that the editor needed to support “type type type type type”. As the prototype editor gets more and more complex, I worry that is getting lost.

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  6. Do our opinions on Gutenberg really matter? I thought it is already a done deal.

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    1. WordPress.org remains a community project. Matt can pull the covers a long way his way, but at the end of the day, the Emperor’s Tailor will be judged by the public. If you don’t express your voice and you don’t participate, you lose your vote.

      As examples of code removed from WordPress, finally post formats was pulled in 2013 (there’s an intriguing tweet in Weston’s post by Matt which foreshadows Gutenberg):

      What if post formats weren’t a type of post, but formats you could include in a post with multiples + and drag/drop/rearrange? #wcsf #sotw

      Post formats were chasing Tumbler. Gutenberg is chasing (a dying) Medium. I hate writing in Medium (or even commenting there) despite the quality of the content. Some people love Medium though.

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  7. As an Ubuntu user Gutenberg sounds a lot like Mark Shuttleworth’s Unity 8 project. An overly ambitious vaguely defined project. Most of the features touted in Gutenberg I have no need for. There is also the mistake of thinking of WordPress as a blogging software instead of a CMS. I would suggest Gutenberg be turned into a parallel editor before merging.

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    1. Yeah, the Unity project made many Ubuntu users abandon Ubuntu and turned to other distros and now they finally decided to drop the project. Hopefully WordPress is not going the same path.

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  8. Seems like a bazooka to kill an ant, and one that is fairly counter-intuitive…especially if one has years on the ‘traditional’ WP editor.

    But, as others have noted, doesn’t seem like we’re being given a choice: it will be released and it will replace TinyMCE.

    So much for the highly democratic and open-source WordPress…

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  9. If Gutenberg becomes the default visual editor and eventually offers even more features, would that kill off the theme development community? Because, WordPress would become an app with it’s own CSS rather than a framework for modification / theme-ming.

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    1. I’ve long wondered if the trend toward page builders would do this to themes as well. With most modern page builders, often the best theme is more like a vanilla theme with little styling to interfere with the page builder generated pages and templates.

      Basically each page has its own design, top to bottom, that overrides any theme styling anyways. Taken to its logical conclusion, themes would become obsolete.

      That said, I don’t have the impression that Gutenberg goes nearly as far in this direction.

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      1. A boring part of front-end theme development is the dreadful phase when I have to customize HTML components generated by WordPress. Even more default components via Gutenberg seems like a lot of work just to release one theme.

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  10. There are those of us who go against the tide trying to educate consumers to use headers as headings and not style choices; we try to tell them that they do NOT need to change fonts and colors ad nauseum. However, that is a restriction that few other content publishing apps contain.

    This purist desire for simple is understandable, but is not the future. The future will always be ‘easier’. We are only going there now (late in the game compared to weebly, wix, etc), because we’re at a place where speed, flexibility and quality of code (arguably) doesn’t have to be compromised.

    I believe it’s inevitable. We can kick and scream all we like. (And we like.)

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  11. Yes the editor is a HUGE change, yes there will probably be some growing pains at first, but we can’t all look and wait to see what Mullenweg says at any moment looking for some deep wisdom and then get upset when he makes a decision for WordPress. Yes its open source and a “community” project, but every community needs a leader.

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  12. Oh I should also note that I think Gutenberg should be an additional selectable editor along with TinyMCE with the WP user making the final editor to use choice.

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  13. When I first heard about Gutenberg, I asked some people at WordCamp London and later at WordCamp Europe who had requested it.

    There appears to be some short memories. Pretty much everytime the editor comes up here, there is a long discussion about how it needs improving. For example.

    There are long discussions on Trac tickets which have been going on for years about how the editor experience should be changed.

    So, in answer to the question “who requested this” – the community did.

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    1. Please note that I asked that question, not the author of this article. I also am not involved in WordPress as a contributor nor even as a community member — until now?

      So as a WordPress “customer” who suddenly heard about this new thing and also had access to the community, I started asking.

      I think the takeaway there is that being a WordPress user does not mean one is also aware of anything going on in the community.

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