WordPress.com’s Business Plan Gives Subscribers a Way to Tap into WordPress.org’s Third-party Ecosystem

Earlier this year, WordPress.com launched an experiment giving Business plan subscribers the ability to install third-party plugins and themes. Automattic concluded the experiment earlier this week and officially made the features part of the subscription plan.

“With support for plugins and third-party themes, WordPress.com Business users will be able to connect their sites to great email and social media tools, e-commerce solutions, publishing and subscription services, and more,” Mark Armstrong said.

This change is twelve years in the making. With the exception of WordPress VIP, customers have not had the ability to install third-party themes and plugins on WordPress.com.

Customers Can Only Install Custom Plugins Through The WP-Admin Interface

Customers can install plugins or themes from the WordPress.org directories or they can upload custom themes and plugins. WordPress.com has two user interfaces, one that resembles Calypso and the other is WP-Admin.

Here is what adding plugins looks like using the Calypso interface. Plugins are displayed from the WordPress.org plugin directory with no way to upload a custom plugin.

Adding Plugins on WordPress.com Through The Calypso Interface
Adding Plugins on WordPress.com Through The Calypso Interface

This is what adding plugins looks like using the WP-Admin interface. This interface has a button that allows customers to upload a custom plugin. Automattic is aware of the discrepancy and says they’re working on streamlining both interfaces.

Adding Plugins Through WP-Admin on WordPress.com
Adding Plugins Through WP-Admin on WordPress.com

Customers Can Upload Non 100% GPL Licensed Code to WordPress.com

The ability to upload a custom theme or plugin truly opens the door for subscribers to customize their sites. But it also allows customers to use themes and plugins that are not 100% GPL licensed. Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, has made it clear in the past that he will only support plugins and themes that are 100% GPL.

Even though graphics and CSS aren’t required to be GPL legally, the lack thereof is pretty limiting. Can you imagine WordPress without any CSS or JavaScript? So as before, we will only promote and host things on WordPress.org that are 100% GPL or compatible.

Mullenweg has used his influence in the past to provoke marketplaces such as Envato to provide a 100% GPL license option to its authors. Authors who choose not to sell their items with the 100% GPL license are excluded from being able to sponsor or speak at WordCamps.

Although the above quote references WordPress.org, WordPress.com is a platform that Mullenweg controls. It’s odd that the ability to upload a theme or plugin that is not 100% GPL exists on WordPress.com. I believe the feature is an oversight and will be removed in the immediate future ensuring that only themes and plugins from the official directories are allowed to be used.

Managed WordPress Hosts Have Reasons to Be Concerned

Responses to the news from members of the WordPress community are mixed. Phil Crumm, Director of Strategic Opportunities at 10up, published a great article that examines the potential impacts this move will have on the managed WordPress hosting ecosystem and its community:

Within the WordPress community, there’s long been a notion that ‘more users on WordPress’ is universally good. Until now, that’s been difficult to argue: an expansive ecosystem has developed over the last decade, and many now make their living off of WordPress.

Despite that, WordPress.com’s Business Plan now feels like it’s oriented towards cannibalizing users from elsewhere within that ecosystem — from sites that may have ‘grown up’ and moved to another hosting provider to those that now may not know that the broader ecosystem even exists — which is objectively a step backwards for the WordPress community.

Tony Perez, co-founder and CEO of Sucuri, says the implications are gravest to managed WordPress hosts. “The biggest impacts however are likely to be towards those hosting companies that have invested resources (both people and dollars) into creating a vibrant Managed WordPress hosting business ecosystem,” Perez said.

“Long are the days when the market was defined by Page.ly and WPEngine. Today I would consider the space to be saturated, with more flavors of Managed WordPress than ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins.”

Chris Lema, a member of Liquid Web’s Leadership team, responded to the article saying it’s rare for manufactures to enter the same market as their distributors or partners.

“While not impossible, we rarely see manufacturers get into the same business as their distributors or retail partners,” Lema said.

“That’s because it can create a lot of unwanted, unplanned for, unintended secondary consequences. But to inexpensive hosts, this is one of those head-turners, because they were assured, for oh so long, that this wasn’t the game Automattic was getting into.

“But Automattic is not just a nice community player. They’re a business. With investors. And they have to think about their own bottom line. So while it’s not surprising, I think you’re right that hosts have the most to be thinking about.”

Others like Scott Bolinger, have expressed cautious optimism regarding the change.

Some theme and plugin authors see it as a growth opportunity. Josh Pollock, founder of CalderaWP, is excited to see WordPress.com become a quality hosting option for his users.

“As a plugin author, I like not just more places for my plug-in to be used, but more quality hosting options,” Pollock said. “Dealing with sub-optimal environments is the hardest part of being a plug-in author. I’m excited about more users and having those users be on a quality platform.”

How Much Pie Does Automattic Want?

WordPress.com offering a subset of customers the ability to access the incredible third-party WordPress plugin and theme ecosystem is a huge development, but it leaves me with a few questions. First, why is WordPress.com only now offering this feature? Why wasn’t it available years ago?

WordPress.com is now competing head-to-head with managed hosts. As initiatives are established to grow the WordPress pie for all, how much of that pie does Automattic want for itself? Considering Automattic is a business backed by investors, does it matter how much they want or get?

How do you feel about WordPress.com allowing subscribers to tap into the WordPress.org ecosystem?

31 Comments


  1. Now that Automattic has opened up WordPress.com for custom themes and plugins it definitely starts to become a real WordPress hosting company.

    If they would have made this move years ago, the WordPress hosting ecosystem probably would be different today. Probably their biggest advantage over the competition is having “WordPress” in their domain name.

    Even before they opened up WordPress.com it was already very confusing for users thinking that WordPress.com is “WordPress”, until they realized how many restrictions there are on WordPress.com while learning more about WordPress at the same time and then possibly moving their site to the self-hosted alternative.

    But now after WordPress.com has partially opened up (I expect they will open up even more in the future), the lines are becoming really blurry. If you want to start a WordPress site and are looking for a host, which hosting company will you choose as unexperienced user? Hosting companies you’ve never heard about (because it’s your first website) or the WordPress hosting company that is called “WordPress”? Seems the WordPress.com domain name is now really paying off after all.

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    1. The lines are only as blurry as Chrome and Chromium. You can bake Chromium into your app, but you can’t call it Chrome.

      Matt played a long game and intentionally handicapped WordPress.com so that an ecosystem would build around it – hosting companies and solutions that could do something different and essential to the ecosystem.

      Now that ecosystem is here to stay, so WordPress.com is going for low hanging fruit.

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      1. So true.

        I wonder if it would be possible to change the name of WordPress after all this top-of-mind weight it garnered, it would surely generate a lot of noise and publicity.

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    2. Indeed, the confusion between WordPress.org and WordPress.com will be muddied even more. But as a user, being able to upgrade from a free, basic, WordPress.com account to something that allows me to use any plugin or theme I want without having to move anywhere is an incredible convenience.

      It does make me sad somewhat to realize how many people will potentially see WordPress.com as THE WordPress, even though it happens already, it will probably increase.

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      1. I wonder when/if WordPress.com will join the list of recommended hosts on WordPress.org … ;)

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  2. It’s worth mentioning that WordPress.com business plan costs about $25 per month, which is much more expensive than the average hosting solution for a small to medium website. I guess this is the silver lining for hosting companies competing with WordPress.com :-)

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    1. Yes, I didn’t specifically mention the price but it’s in line with many of the other Managed WordPress hosts, outside of GoDaddy. We’ll have to see what happens.

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    2. For a quality hosting company, I would say that’s pretty cheap.

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  3. The third party plugins on WordPress.com is not as much of an error as you might think.

    Matt may have his principles, but Automattic has an obligation to its shareholders. If customers want non-GPL plugins on WordPress.com – and it is in Automattic’s economic interest to offer it, Matt doesn’t get to say no. Not without approval of the board.

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    1. That is still in line with the GPL license. If you develop your own plugins and do not distribute them, then you are not bound to license them.

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  4. > Pushes Calypso/React/JS that nobody wants
    > Pushes Gutenberg/React/JS that nobody wants
    > Pushes Jetpack on WP.com and WP.org that nobody wants

    Glimpse of 2020:

    The “featured plugins” section of WP.org now consists entirely of Jetpack, WooCommerce, VaultPress, Gutenberg Themes, Gutenberg Plugins, Calypso Themes, and the Calypso client. In order to download any of these, you need to have Jetpack installed, but in order to communicate with the Jetpack API, you’ll have to use a Calypso client, which you login to via the WP.com SSO page.

    “wplite” is now the most popular fork of what was formerly known as WordPress software. It is compatible with any theme or plugin built for the pre-5.0 version of WordPress, and still uses PHP, despite the religious obsession over JS continuing at WP.com…

    Speaking of the devil, WP.com has fully bought out WP Engine’s shareholders and intellectual property (and blackhat SEO) and is gobbling up the WordPress hosting world. It continues to “follow” and emulate other industry players like Shopify, with WooCommerce heavily investing into better Amazon.com integration, since Amazon capital is invested into Shopify, although WP.com is still suffering from an identity crisis due to having for years tried to simultaneously copy both Wix and Medium. Because Automattic’s investors don’t know a thing about web hosting, and because Mullenweg’s paranoia and desperation to be recognized as a “disrupter” on par with Zuckerberg drive most decisions, the company continues to come out with new React-based features, completely unaware that most high-end publishers (and Core contributors) like the New York Times have already switched over to “wplite”…

    Or, hire this man as a strategic consultant?

    https://john.onolan.org/calypso/

    https://wptavern.com/what-wordpress-can-learn-from-the-ghost-project

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    1. Nothing.

      Automattic has transferred the WordPress trademark to the WordPress Foundation, the non-profit dedicated to promoting and ensuring access to WordPress and related open source projects in perpetuity. This means that the most central piece of WordPress’s identity, its name, is now fully independent from any company.

      https://ma.tt/2010/09/wordpress-trademark/

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      1. This is interesting. It “is now fully independent from any company” but there is one company that does not pays for the right to use the WordPress brand.

        Am I missing something here…?

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  5. “I believe the feature is an oversight and will be removed in the immediate future ensuring that only themes and plugins from the official directories are allowed to be used.“

    It’s WordPress for Business not WordPress for Blogs. If Business customers don’t have the ability to upload and activate the plugins they want to use, be they commercial plugins they purchased outside the WordPress.org repository OR custom plugins they developed themselves or paid to have developed to accomplish what they want to do, it’s not a viable business solution.

    Uploading themes and plugins and not forcing users to only use what is in the WordPress.org repository isn’t an oversight. It’s a necessary feature from a business standpoint.

    Do you think self-hosted would remove the ability to upload your own themes and plugins? Then why would you think a Business class hosting solution for WordPress would do so?

    It’s simple: WordPress.com wants to compete with the other WordPress hosting companies and to do so it needs to allow those business customers to upload themes and plugins. Otherwise they’d stand no chance at competing with the GoDaddy and Pagely’s of the WordPress world.

    “But… But… But GPL… Someone might upload a non-GPL plugin to their own business web site ” OH THE HORROR!!! Most themes and plugins adhere to the GPL. Can we stop making this some sort of controversy or topic of discussion? It’s time to move on. Anyone that matters in WordPress is already GPL compliant. Quit worrying about bottom feeders.

    Also… custom plugins developed for a site don’t have to be released as GPL because they don’t have to be released publicly to begin with. So you can say they inherit the GPL but it’s moot because they don’t have to be released and distributed at all if they were developed for use on a specific site.

    This wasn’t an oversight. It’s a necessity for doing business focused WordPress hosting.

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    1. I get what you’re saying about the business aspects of it all. It makes sense and the features allows customers to do what they can do at other managed hosts.

      Having such a hardcore stance on 100% GPL through the years and allowing subscribers to have the ability to upload Themes or Plugins that are not 100% GPL on a platform he controls baffles me.

      Does the $25 a month per Business plan customer trump that detail? It appears so and it’s not a detail that needs to be swept under the rug but rather, something to keep in mind.

      Running Thesis on WordPress.com, what a world I live in today.

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  6. LOL, this is just another reminder that GPL is there so big companies can take advantage of small players. How are the theme and plugin authors are supposed to be able to monetize the development if they can not offer an upgrade path?

    Seems like I am going to invest some time into detecting a wordpress.com enviroment and make my plugins fail when it is detected. If @matt wants to abuse my efforts, he will at least need to go with the effort of forking and maintaining it.

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    1. I don’t understand what you’re saying here and why would you create an unnecessary negative experience for your users? How is Matt abusing your efforts by allowing customers to use your plugin on their hosting platform?

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      1. Jeff, as described in the article, it will be hard if not impossible to install a plugin from non official source. It might be totally due to not having enough coffee, late hour or whatever which is to be blamed in me misinterpreting things, but in the real life, the only way software exists is by someone paying for it. If you do not get paid for the development of a software you are more likely to just stop developing it.

        As for people using a plugin from wordpress.org being the plugin author’s user, this is just false. They have downloaded the software from wordpress.org, they should ask that distributor to support them. With wordpress.org no plugin author can connect with the plugin’s users therefor I am not sure in what way are they exactly “users”.
        This is actually a practical and not a philosophical problem, in the next version I want to make a big UI change and I have no way to communicate that people should test before upgrade.

        wordpress.com want to get 25$ a month (which is probably double of industry standard) from users? good for them, but if they intent to use my software as a way to promote the service, the honest thing is to pay royalties, and if they don’t I do not have to play their game. Less non paying installs means less support calls from people that didn’t pay for support.

        I am unlikely to actually follow on what I said, but if plugins are what make wordpress special, the disregard to the health of the plugin economy is annoying.

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  7. Months (and months and months ago), when it was still “experimental”, I spun up a .com Business Plan site.

    Now, I know from history that folks seem to get a good deal of keyboard courage when they belly up to the Tavern, but here’s a few thoughts (and, please folks: Try to stay focused) ;-)

    All my sites are running WooCommerce. So, I was additionally thrilled to see that one could install WooCommerce Extensions as well. Not just WooCommerce core, but also Memberships, Variation Swatches, Social Login, and more……

    Awesome, right? So, Business Plan users are getting to completely and totally extend WooCommerce!?!?! Now we can get into some real functionality, better conversions, and higher sales via additional WooCommerce Extensions! Note, I did not use or test any extensions found in a canyon. Only official WooCommerce Extensions.

    So SkyVerge doesn’t have to really worry about support requests which are derived from or as a result of sh!tty hosting companies. Same with Brent and the folks at Prospress!

    The good thing about a standardized hosting environment is that the support tickets now have the “potential” of being decreased (to what degree is to-be-determined, but it’s still “one less” line item – hopefully) & we all know how costly support staff can be.

    So, that’s a plus!

    What stunk was when I tried to find, test, switch, and change themes.

    Over in the “.org world”, I’m up to child theme #5 for Storefront. It works. It’s ugly. It’s raw. However, it’s incredibly easy to add styles & re-prioritize the functions. Most importantly though, WooCommerce Extensions are tested against Storefront compatibility to make sure they all (pretty much) play quite efficiently together.

    Now, let’s forget about the (somewhat) longstanding {cough} “concerns” about navigating and maneuvering around the .com dashboard. What I found was a much more concerning problem was the lack of WooCommerce compatible themes in the .com arena.

    I’m not just talking about “yeah, we declared support for WooCommerce” (….so that we can tout that it’s WooCommerce compatible) type of sub-par themes. We’re looking at themes which have accounted for Memberships CSS, Variation Swatches, ….things like that!

    What they need are themes which have the similar capacity and longevity of Storefront and it’s integrations with WooCommerce Extensions.

    This news might be awesome for the crunchy mom blogger, the affiliate marketer, or someone looking for a lead generation type of site.

    When the word “Business” is used to describe a “Plan”, then ….rock on! Let’s conduct some business!

    Does tapping into the “third party ecosystem” really do much for WooCommerce Business Owners: The people who make something, ship things, rely on financial transactions, process customer service for orders, need reviews as ranking factors, product layout extensions as sales boosters, and/ or tight order integration with customer’s social accounts….?

    It does no Business owner any good to have only one (or a substantially minimal number) of WooCommerce compatible themes to {drum roll} conduct Business!

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  8. You left out a big downside to these new business plans. You STILL can’t run your own ads on the site. No Google adsense income. You have to use the stupid WordAds from Matt. LET US RUN OUR OWN ADS.

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    1. You left out a big downside to these new business plans. You STILL can’t run your own ads on the site.

      Hi Astute Observer,

      You can run your own ads on the Business plan according to WP.com’s documentation:

      If you’d like to use third-party ad networks like Google AdSense, OpenX, Lijit, BuySellAds, and Vibrant Media, those options are available on the WordPress.com Business Plan

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      1. Ok wow that is a new change then. Glad to hear we can now run our own ads. Thank you.

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    2. What a cool business model do you have in mind with Google Adsense? ;)

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  9. I’ve asked about this a few times before but never got a proper answer.

    Do we get FTP and database access? If not, will a plugin like Adminer be allowed?

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  10. As WordPress beginner user, this is an interesting plan for WordPress user who do not want to use self host and prefer to use WordPress.com service. This is a good option for the beginner who do not want to dealing with hosting choice that sometimes always asked from WordPress.org first user.

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  11. Seems like a good option for new users and SMBs starting off on WordPress. And keeping them in the WP ecosystem long term if they transition to self-hosted.

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  12. I wonder if that means third party theme/plugin shops, can now market their product as being compatible with WordPress business plan?

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