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18 years of WordPress, and all that jazz

It’s been 18 years since WordPress was released to the world. To celebrate the 18th birthday of WordPress, which is on May 27, let’s look at each of the major releases and what came afterward, examining the successes and a few controversies that happened along the way.

Launch of WordPress, ‘Miles Davis’ 2003-2005

As with most great companies, WordPress started because one person —  in this case, a 19-year-old — had a need that was unfulfilled. Blogging enthusiast Matt Mullenweg did not like any existing online blogging software except b2, which was no longer maintained or updated. Meanwhile, leading blog software Movable Type increased their pricing. 

Wanting to dance to his own tune, Mullenweg reached out to British developer Mike Little, and the two forked b2/cafelog code and created the start of something beautiful. The first version of WordPress launched on May 27, 2003. This new platform wasn’t just a relaunch of b2 that came before. Mullenweg and Little were on a mission to deliver a new and improved program with bigger and better features.

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Version 1.0 was released on January 3, 2004. This version, named after famous jazz musician Miles Davis (a convention that would be continued for all major releases)  turned bare-bones software into a blogging platform. Some of the upgrades included in this first numbered release were the ability to have multiple categories per post, an easier installation and upgrade path, comment moderation, better admin interface options, and tools to import from Movable Type and Textpattern.

WordPress 1.0 bears little resemblance to what we use now. This version had no installer, no WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor, and no plugins or themes. 

On May 22, 2004, WordPress version 1.2, ‘Mingus’ introduced plugins, a system designed by core developer Ryan Boren. Each installation of WordPress came ‘pre-loaded’ with the Hello Dolly plugin, which demonstrated how plugins worked and gave plugin developers code on which they could model their own plugins. Plugins remain to this day one of the most groundbreaking WordPress features. 

WordPress gets a GNU Public License (GPL),  its philosophical equivalent of the bill of rights. GPL gives WordPress end-users peace of mind WordPress always has, and always will be, freely available to us in all of the ways we are used to. GPL is arguably behind WordPress domination in the CMS market. The fact that anyone can download WordPress for free and learn it without any trouble, thanks to its ever-expanding community and support.

The year 2004 also saw the premiere of bbPress, forum software written by Mullenweg to replace previous software running on the WordPress support forums. 

Illustration of Duke Ellington on piano

Version 2.0 ‘Duke Ellington’ 2005-2010

WordPress 2.0 brought significant changes to WordPress, making it far more user-friendly and expanding the functionality beyond just blogging. 

A major improvement with this release was the addition of static pages to the existing post structure. Until now, WordPress was exclusively a blogging platform. By introducing static pages, users could now build an entire website. This was a pivotal moment toward WordPress becoming a complete website solution where even non-developers could build websites.

In this period, WordPress added user roles, necessary as blogs grew from individuals to multi-person projects. The new user role system helps secure websites by ensuring users don’t have access to things they shouldn’t have. We also saw the first appearance of widgets, allowing users to add things like photos, signup forms, and menus within sidebars, footers, and other areas of their posts and pages.

WordPress also included more automatic processes. By saving the contents of the editor automatically at regular intervals, users no longer had to fear losing their work if they lose connectivity. There was also the rise of automatic installation of themes and plugins. For users, it became easier to install themes and plugins, taking just a few clicks rather than having to upload them to their hosting platform. And no longer did people have to sort through every single comment by hand. Mullenweg developed the spam filter Askimet in October 2005. Akismet would allow users to mark comments as spam and then learn from these interactions, removing thousands of spam comments automatically. As of last year, Akismet had blocked over 500 billion spam messages.  

The new default theme Kubrick was a huge step forward for WordPress, and it stuck around as the default from its release in February 2005 to June 2010. It was the first theme to use templates, separate bits of PHP code that broke the theme up into sections that could be edited independently, allowing for customizable headers, footers, and sidebars. (Fun fact: you can still download it and install it on your WordPress site today!)

As you can see, themes were still relatively simple and nothing like the modern versions you see today. 

This period also witnessed some big changes to the business side of WordPress. In 2005 Mullenweg founded Automattic.com (the company that runs the hosted WordPress version at WordPress.com) and raised $1.10 million in Series A funding. This was the first sign of growing confidence in the platform from outside investors.  

But it wasn’t all business. Mullenweg organized the first WordCamp in 2006 in San Francisco, and opened the door to WordPress community gatherings around the world. Billed as affordable community gatherings for users of all levels, these were a huge departure from most software conferences that only enterprise users can attend. And unlike most tech conferences, WordCamps are all locally-organized by community members. As of 2021, there are 784 WordCamps in 69 cities across 65 countries. 

WordPress attracted a steady and growing following by 2007. As users celebrated all the new features that landed in recent years, they also experienced WordPress’s first major security breach. A hacker gained access to one of the WordPress servers, and WordPress took measures to ensure nothing like this could happen again. 

Version 3.0 ‘Thelonious’ 2010-2014

The third version of WordPress in 2010 was a serious upgrade that witnessed the transformation from a blogging platform to full-fledged CMS. This era introduced headers, navigation menus, custom backgrounds, taxonomies, post types, short links, multisite, and a whole lot more.

With this release, the core developers made WordPress easier for less tech-savvy users. They added a new media manager and a theme customizer. For less experienced users, these new features were a tremendous help. For example, creating a gallery was a far less daunting experience, as was customizing a theme. For anyone new to website building and design, the possibility to test a theme and make customization before it went live was a game-changer. 

This period also saw a new, responsive interface for a better experience on handheld devices. The platform could now display pages that fit on any device or screen size. Simultaneously, there was a heavy focus on audio and video integration and support as WordPress prepared for the rising popularity of streaming media content.

And things were working. By 2013 WordPress had grown into the most popular CMS in the world, dominating 51% of the CMS market share.

Future proofing the brand, Automattic transferred the ownership of the WordPress trademark and logo to the WordPress Foundation, ensuring the product and name remained with the community rather than a corporation.

Illustration of Benny Goodman

Version 4.0 ‘Benny Goodman’ 2014-2018

By the release of WordPress 4.0, it was safe to say that WordPress had become a website-building powerhouse. By 2015, WordPress powered over 25% of the Internet. 

This version didn’t come with as many obvious bells and whistles as the previous releases, but there was a significant improvement to the underlying code. During this period, the REST API Infrastructure was merged with core, helping to expand what WordPress as a platform can do. It’s now simpler to connect WordPress with other sites and applications like Google Maps, for example. With the Google Maps API, users can place a map on their site to benefit from Google’s relevant data and features, saving having to code up a map and collect all that data yourself. The same applies to a wide range of sites and applications.

Having said that, with 4.0 there were still user interface improvements, including even easier media management, a streamlined content editing window (including a distraction-free option), better internationalization (being able to choose your admin language), easier embedding options, and a huge step forward, the ability to preview different themes using your own content within the Customizer. Menu creation got a lot easier with the new Menus customizer, allowing users to modify menus and add custom links on the fly. 

They also introduced a stronger passwords process to improve security. Rather than sending passwords through email, WordPress now sends a password reset link.  

Plugin downloads soared to one billion from 700 million downloads in 2014. People realized the benefits of WordPress evolution into a CMS capable of building any website they could think of.

And closer to home, in 2017 Namecheap launched EasyWP with a vision to support the goal of WordPress to democratize the web for everyone. WIth EasyWP’s affordable, and straightforward Managed WordPress hosting, it has never been easier to start publishing with WordPress. Installing WordPress takes less than sixty seconds whereas before, it took several minutes and some technical know-how.

Version 5.0 ‘Bebo Valdés’ 2018-2020

The new block editor code-named Gutenberg dropped as part of the version 5.0 core release. At its launch, we wrote a blog dedicated to Gutenberg, with several others since then. In short, while any update to the WordPress editor sets tongues wagging in the WordPress community, Gutenberg changed the game thanks by adding blocks that help people create posts and pages with more flexibility.

Until this point, a theme determined where a widget’s placement on a page. Now, users can drop their widgets in any content area on posts and pages via the block editor. The platform is taking steps toward full-site editing where blocks, including widgets, can, in the future, be placed anywhere.

The site health project merged into WordPress core in 2019 and gave users a screen full of information about their website’s health. This included a fatal-error detection script, a nifty feature that automatically emails the site owner if a theme or plugin issue is found.

As speed has become a ranking factor in search engines, WordPress responded with lazy loading images. This addition dramatically speeds up WordPress websites. Views and pages feel faster for users, and website owners secure their places in search engine results pages.

man and child decorating WordPress logo for birthday

2021 delivers the most impressive stats to date

We’ve reviewed some of the high points of the past 18 years of WordPress. As the CMS prepares for another year of growth, it’s worth pausing to review some of the numbers.

As you can see, a lot has changed since 2003. WordPress is big on updates, and they come thick and fast between each version release — we’ve just focused on the highlights. The number of features, contributors, funding, users, and websites has grown at a mindblowing rate. There’s no sign of this exponentially growing ecosystem slowing down. 

WordPress is one of the most improved CMS thanks to many users giving feedback and innumerable developers helping the platform grow. Likewise, many companies develop specialized WordPress products and services which add to its ease of use and success. The way things are going, WordPress is on track to power 50% of the CMS market share by the end of 2025

Celebrating 18 great years

The future sure looks bright when so many people are rooting for you. The WordPress community has never been so big, and the software has never been so scalable, newbie-friendly, and versatile — and we’re glad to be a part of that. As a member of the WordPress ecosystem, Namecheap and EasyWP would like to say: 

Happy Birthday to WordPress AND the WordPress community! 

With EasyWP, it’s never been easier to join the party. EasyWP offers the simplest way to set up a WordPress website, and you don’t need to get your hands dirty with any technical stuff — just head to our installation Wizard. Then, all you have to do is choose a cool domain name, and in 60 seconds, you’ll have a fully hosted WordPress website. 
It’s never been a better time to bring your ideas to life with WordPress. To get started, check out our video on how to start publishing in WordPress in under a minute.

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Isobel Weston

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