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WordPress: celebrating 19 years of open source

Still going strong after eighteen years, WordPress has surpassed all expectations. In the early days, co-founder Matt Mullenweg joked that WordPress had more developers than users. Although WordPress got off to a slow start, it’s gone on to change the lives of millions of people. 

According to the latest data, 500 new WordPress sites are made every day. Compare that to the 60-80 per day built on the nearest competitor’s platforms, Shopify and Squarespace.  

While Mullenweg could not have predicted the meteoric rise of WordPress, it’s safe to say that his vision of free, open-source software is the driving force behind its success. Thanks to a dedicated team mostly of volunteers, companies are making millions in revenue, and thousands of jobs have been created —  and no one’s paid a cent to use it to this day. 

As we celebrate another year of WordPress and its landmark birthday on May 27, we want to dive into the WordPress mindset. Why, as a tech entrepreneur, has Mullenweg kept his most valuable asset free? Was it this decision that future-proofed the platform for many birthdays to come? Sure, you want answers, so let’s get started. 

Person in WordPress overalls

Would there be a WordPress without open-source?

Let’s skip back to where it all began when high-schooler Mullenweg started to explore the web. The blogging software Movable Type caught his attention, but he felt that he was renting the software, and he wasn’t sure about that. Eventually, developments to the Movable Type platform slowed down, so, again, Mullenweg had to find software to keep blogging and came across Michel Valdrighi’s b2/ cafelog. 

Mullenweg spoke about this time on the 3 billion under 30 blog,

“What was most interesting about it (b2) was ‘open-source’…. I started to read up on it because b2 had transparent source code, meaning I could see how it worked. I decided to make some changes to it. When I told Michel about them, he said, ‘That’s awesome! You should submit a patch to SourceForge, and we’ll merge it.’”

When Mullenweg and co-founder Mike Little created this new branch of b2 back in 2003, a friend of Mullenweg’s, Christine Tremoulet, suggested a name for the new program and, voila, WordPress was born. 

Soon, others joined the team, including Valdrighi, the creator of b2. Little did they know that they were sowing the seeds for a whole industry that millions would contribute to and make a living from. 

In the early days, WordPress had minimal adoption. As Mullenweg said, 

“We used to joke that we had more developers than users because even the people working on the software didn’t use it themselves. I set it up for a few friends from high school that were artists and musicians but not really tech people, and so these early uses of WordPress drove some of the usability that we built into our software.”

Soon after WordPress launched, their main competitor back then, Movable Type, radically changed their pricing structure. Unimpressed with the higher subscription, Movable Type customers began looking for a viable alternative. This single event put the WordPress wheels in motion and drove thousands of new subscribers their way.

As a fork of b2, WordPress would never have existed without the concept of free software. Then there’s the impact of the open-source community on WordPress’s fast development. WordPress has inspired thousands of people to input their help from the day, which isn’t usually the case with proprietary (non-free) software. 

Now we’re straight on how WordPress came to being. It’s time to dig a bit deeper into Mullenweg’s affinity for open-source. It’s time to talk about the most popular open-source license, the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Person watering a WordPress flower

The driving force behind WordPress growth: GPL 

It’s fair to say that Mullenweg is one of the leading voices in open-source. He established WordPress with a clear mission. As he put it, he wanted “to democratize publishing so that you and I have the same tools as Time magazine does.” He used the GPL to make this dream a reality. 

The GPL allows you to make your work free (as in speech), and that modified versions will also be free. Contrary to popular understanding, the word “free” doesn’t have anything to do with price in terms of software. The WordPress hive often says it’s “not free as in beer, [but] free as in speech, meaning users are free to use, modify and distribute the software.

It’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t get behind a license that protects your rights to do what you like with a piece of software. The GPL goes further than this, guaranteeing that any innovations made with said software are made available as a common good, benefiting the whole community.

One might reasonably argue that WordPress is what it is because of the GPL. This license has undoubtedly been the primary catalyst for its exponential growth as Mullengweg noted, 

“Open source has a virtuous cycle of adoption, people building on the platform and more adoption,” as he put it. 

WordPress is a prime example of the impact free software can have on our lives. Currently, WordPress powers 40.7% of all websites and has fostered an ecosystem of thousands of people that make a good living from using the software. No other CMS has achieved the popularity or community on this scale. At its current growth rate, it’s on course to power half of the Internet by 2025

There are many cool things about WordPress, and it’s safe to say the people within a sprawling community are its biggest strength, and in the next section, we’re going to focus on them. 

A toast to everyone in the WordPress ecosystem

The community of core devs, contributors, and everyone behind the milestones mentioned are the silent heroes behind the platform’s massive progress. 

First up, let’s give a shout-out to the Core contributors. For the latest update, 45 core developers volunteered their time, skills, and energy into making WordPress the best platform known to man. 

Without them working on WordPress, the platform would slowly decay or just not get better. Instead, a team effort ensued. According to Openhub, it took 382 people years to write over one million lines of code, at an estimated cost of over $21 million, had they been paid. 

Let’s not forget the themes and plugins as well. WordPress developers frequently release a free version of their theme or plugin to give back to the community even if there is a premium version available.

Then there are the tirelessly loyal fans and enthusiasts who we can thank for WordPress being available in over 68 languages — with many more translations underway.

Lest we forget WordPress volunteers’ efforts, thanks to them, the first WordCamp was possible back in 2006. We’ve had 932 meetups in 65 countries, spanning six continents since then. 

Finally, there’s Mullenweg himself, a man dedicated to Internet freedom and keeping the web open for everyone to use. He believes in an open-source world that is good for small business owners and web admins. Mullenweg’s philanthropic ventures include Archive.Org, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation. 

According to Mullenweg,

“For every dollar that Automattic [the company behind WordPress.com] makes, twenty or twenty-one dollars are made by the other companies in the WordPress ecosystem.”. 

As you can see, almost everyone who works with WordPress gives back something. That’s why this whole system works so beautifully from day one.

Man with a WordPress flag

Will open-source soon dominate over closed ecosystems?

During a fireside chat with Sebastiaan van der Lans, Mullenweg predicted a day when the big platforms no longer dominate the web and pointed to a movement already growing as a reaction to a closed ecosystem. 

“Open-source eventually dominates every sector it enters. The ‘eventually’ is the key because sometimes it can happen fairly quickly.”

Referring to Bitcoin taking on finance, Wikipedia for information, and WordPress for content management, Mullenweg predicted that open source will dominate software development in less than a decade. 

As a warning to potential developers out there hoping to ride the open-source wave — there is a bit more to it to running a successful project. Mullenweg explained to Van der Lans that, “software doesn’t win just because it’s open. Open-source doesn’t win just because it has a morally superior license. You have to have a better user experience”.

As any WordPress user can attest — the WordPress user experience is pretty strong. Thanks to the relentless work of WordPress contributors, each release brings more user-friendly features. Each update has made it easier for anyone to build a pretty advanced website, and millions of users are doing just that — used by 40.7% of all the websites, according to data from Web3 Techs.

What does the future hold for WordPress?

Powering over 40% of the Internet is a lot indeed, but there’s still room for growth, and Mullenweg has made no secret of his plans for WordPress’ evolution. Back in 2014, he mentioned that “when you think about it, we’re kind of building a web operating system.” 

In short, that means besides blogging and building websites, you can use WordPress as a framework for virtually any application. Thanks to REST API, WordPress can be used with any framework and programming language. This makes it much easier for developers to build new types of applications, including Web 3 technology, with WordPress.

WordPress and Web 3.0

Web 3.0 is the next generation of Internet technology that we’re just beginning to experience. It relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and more advanced customization. This next stage in the development of the Internet aims to create more intelligent web applications and websites with an emphasis on machine learning. 

Here’s the snag: these revolutionary technologies come with a heavy price tag, excluding many people from the competitive advantages they bring. But the good news is that they will become more available to general web users and website builders, thanks to open source applications like WordPress. 

Think back to how TinyMCE and PHP set a precedent for WordPress to become the dominant CSM during the era of Web 2.0. The Gutenberg block system is a giant leap forward, cementing the platform as one of the most straightforward choices for website building. The versatile blocks are an excellent move for the future, as they are versatile and allow developers to leverage the WordPress API more fully. 

WordPress is in an ideal position to leverage these technologies within the block editor to bring powerful, forward-thinking tools to regular folks. Blocks have the potential to simplify tech like machine learning and AI once they move downstream

Has WordPress inspired you yet? 

So, we’ve retraced WordPress steps from inception, and the reasons for starting as and sticking with open source are clear. We hope this article serves as an inspiration for anyone interested in WordPress, and most importantly, joining the open-source revolution. What’s not to love? You get the most versatile software for building websites for free, and all your data is your own.  

If you’re yet to enjoy WordPress, we recommend managed WordPress hosting from EasyWP. We share Matt Mullenweg’s original idea to democratize the web by making websites affordable and easy to create. Thanks to an installation wizard, you can be publishing WordPress content in under a minute. EasyWP is the fastest and the most affordable managed WordPress hosting option by a long shot. 

If you’re interested in learning more about which hosting is available for your next WordPress site, head over to this guide to the best WordPress hosting.

Have you used any other open-source platforms that our readers should know about? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was updated in May 2022 to reflect WordPress’s 19th birthday.

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Isobel Weston avatar

Isobel Weston

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