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How Gutenberg Will Shape the Future of WordPress

If you follow anything about WordPress, you’re likely familiar with the controversy over Gutenberg, the most significant change to WordPress’ core functionality since WordPress began. 

We first told you about Gutenberg in November 2018, just before it was officially launched as part of WordPress 5.0. Since then, many of us at Namecheap have watched how WordPress has changed over the past year, and we remain excited about its future—with Gutenberg.

However, such a position comes with some controversy, as many people still hate Gutenberg and think it’s the worst thing to happen to WordPress, as evidenced by comments on our most recent post on the topic.

In this post we’re going to drill down into Gutenberg a bit and discuss not so much what has happened over the past year, but where it’s going. And we hope that once you see the bigger picture you will be willing to give Gutenberg another chance. 

How WordPress Happens

As we discuss the future of WordPress, it’s worth noting briefly how WordPress came into being, and how these changes get made.

WordPress is free, open source software that began in 2003 when Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little forked (modified the code) of blogging software called B2/cafelog. They thought they could take this code and make it better. And all these years later, it turns out they were right.

Since that time, thousands of people have come together to work on the WordPress Open Source Project, housed under the website at WordPress.org. They work on developing new functionality, creating beautiful user interfaces, track bugs in the software, answer questions about WordPress in the support forums, build documentation, run WordPress meetups and WordCamps, translate WordPress into other languages, and so much more. Most of these people volunteer their time to make WordPress better.

Over the past year, in fact, WordPress has seen over 1100 unique contributors to WordPress, twice the previous year, with 483 people to date working on Gutenberg development itself.

How Did Gutenberg Happen?

“We came together and decided to make this big change because we wanted to, first, disrupt ourselves, we want to empower more WordPress users to realize our mission of democratizing publishing, and we want to make the web a more open and welcoming place.”

Why Was Disruption Needed?

Disruption? That’s a loaded word. Why would something as big and popular as WordPress want to disrupt anything? Why on earth would they want to ruin countless lives with such major changes?

Let’s take a step back and explore why Gutenberg was needed.

Just like all software, WordPress needs regular updates and new functionality to meet the needs of the global Internet. Back in the early days, WordPress just ran blogs, but now it powers over a third of the Internet. And today’s websites are increasingly complex.

I mean, think about it. The Internet of 2003 was a very different place from the Internet of 2020, and today’s web designers, media outlets, owners of online retailers, and writers need something far more robust than what we had in the past.

Consider, for example, the Namecheap.com homepage. It was mostly made of text back in 2003:

screenshot of Namecheap website in 2003

Nowadays a site like that just wouldn’t cut it. Consumers expect more. 

The problem was, the old WordPress code just wasn’t up to the task of building the kinds of sites people want. Over the years, WordPress developers expanded on the original code, but the underlying structure just wasn’t flexible enough.

Eventually, the people behind WordPress recognized that in order to keep up with today’s website demands, as well as grow with the times, they needed to tear things down and build something new.

And that’s Gutenberg.

How Gutenberg Is Already Changing the Way We Use WordPress

Back in the ‘olden days’ of WordPress, if you wanted to change themes, you could swap them out and your site would sport a new design but it would still function more or less the same way as before. Themes were like giving your website a new coat of paint.

Not so much with today’s themes. Because of the unique code that each theme needs to run, when you change your design you have to pretty much start your website over from scratch. If you’ve ever installed a theme that required additional plugins—and a whole new learning curve—just to build a simple site, you’ve seen how powerful and complex WordPress themes have become. 

But Gutenberg changes all that. It essentially levels the playing field. Everything is built upon a foundation of interchangeable blocks, making it easier for theme developers to use WordPress core code rather than having to spin something new up for their purposes. 

On a more technical level, developers appreciate the shift towards a more modular way of writing code, specifically using Javascript libraries (primarily React, but also Vue and others). WordPress now is also ‘headless,’ allowing much more flexibility in building a website and displaying content outside of what we’ve typically understood was possible.

Because of the underlying architecture, theme developers have more tools to play with—if everything on a WordPress website is contained within a block, then they can put those blocks anywhere, and they can perform certain kinds of coding magic upon those blocks. Want a block that always displays content in a certain font size, perhaps, or as embedded PDF—regardless of where the block lives on the page? That’s possible with Gutenberg.

And it’s already happening. Lots of themes—including some you might already be using—now utilize Gutenberg blocks, giving website developers and end-users a lot more choice in how their websites will look.

For a better understanding of why WordPress developers created Gutenberg, and how it’s different, it might be worth dipping into the Design Principles & Vision documentation provided by Gutenberg’s development team. 

And if you are itching to learn more about how the block editor works (and to learn the basics for writing your own themes or plugins, or how you can contribute to WordPress core), it might be worth drilling down into the official Developer Documentation or the Gutenberg developer tutorials provided by CSS-Tricks.

Where Gutenberg Is Headed

In his keynote, Mullenweg noted that with the release of WordPress 5.3 on November 12th, we’ll see about 20% of what Gutenberg will bring to WordPress (not that it’s incomplete, but that the vision is only partially realized). The roadmap has several more years of improvements and enhancements on the way.

image of a compass

Mullenweg described some of the recent additions to WordPress, such as:

  • Typewriter mode, making it easier to write within a block
  • Block previews, allowing you to quickly review a block’s functionality
  • Quick navigation mode, allowing keyboard navigation, which is a great boon to accessibility

But this is just the beginning. Some of the things to look forward to in the near future include:

  • Social icons that you can add anywhere you can add a block
  • Main navigation (formerly Menus) within inline blocks with a new color picker
  • Color gradients and patterns you can use to fill blocks
  • Block directory allowing you to add a new block inline while creating content
  • Multi-button block, allowing you to add live buttons anywhere you can add a block
Screenshot of button block
Screen capture from the 2019 State of the Word

Many of these upcoming enhancements involve inline design, allowing you to change the look of a page or blog post. As Mullenweg puts it, the goal is to be able to “look at any website in the world and build that inside of WordPress with just a few clicks.”

But that’s not everything he promises with Gutenberg. In upcoming versions, you’ll be able to use Gutenberg to design email templates directly in WordPress, do full-site editing (with blocks for every part of a website), perform real-time co-editing with collaborators, and, as he demonstrated with the slides in his keynote, even give live presentations using Gutenberg.

And believe it or not, Gutenberg can already be used on other Content Management Systems (CMS)—including Drupal and OctoberCMS. In the future, it’s possible other platforms will adopt Gutenberg as well.

Or in other words, this isn’t your mother’s WordPress!

The Growing Pains Might Just Be Worth It

Have you ever had bangs or a trendy haircut that you wanted to grow out? That period of transition was probably frustrating, and you might have dodged the family photos, but eventually, your hair grew out and looked more like what you wanted.

That’s what’s happening with Gutenberg. The initial launch was a bit rocky, largely because WordPress dared to do something different. At WordCamp US, Mullenweg openly acknowledged the criticism that resulted from the Gutenberg launch. He and the core developers hoped—maybe a bit naively—that most people would share their vision for the new WordPress and embrace Gutenberg.

Detractors complain that the familiar WordPress editor they had grown to—well, maybe not love but at least understand—had changed.

And for lots of people whose business depends on their WordPress site, the change had consequences. For one, there’s a learning curve. Theme and plugin developers have to learn new code, website developers have to dig into Gutenberg and teach their clients. And content creators have to get used to a new way of writing and adding other content. 

But even though Gutenberg continues to receive a great deal of criticism, Mullenweg and the lead contributors aren’t sorry they did it—and we shouldn’t be either.

As they say, change can be hard, but for software, it’s sometimes necessary to change just to stay current.

For those who aren’t quite ready for Gutenberg, the developers provided a parachute. You can easily download and install a free plugin restoring the Classic editor, which Mullenweg said will be supported at least through 2022. You’ll still have that funky haircut—but maybe you’re okay with that for now, because at least you can get your job done.

Learn More About the Future

If you want to hear for yourself where WordPress is today and what’s in store for Gutenberg for the future, check out Matt Mullenweg’s State of the Word keynote:

You can also follow all of the incremental Gutenberg Core updates and experimental code testing from the WordPress core development team, the latest Gutenberg news on WP Tavern, or updates provided by the Gutenberg Hub website. 

And if you’re ready to explore the future of WordPress, you can get started in minutes with EasyWP, Namecheap’s managed WordPress hosting.

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Jackie Dana

Jackie has been writing since childhood. As the Namecheap blog’s content manager and regular contributor, she loves bringing helpful information about technology and business to our customers. In her free time, she enjoys drinking copious amounts of black tea, writing novels, and wrangling a gang of four-legged miscreants. More articles written by Jackie .

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