Unlike recent point releases, WordPress 5.0 represents a major shift both in the underlying technology and user experience. Some other releases stand out in my mind – 3.4 brought the theme customizer which is now the foundation for all the theme work done at LexBlog, 3.8 changed the look and feel of the WordPress administrative area, and 4.4 introduced a REST API into core – but this update dwarfs those and most others.
For as long as I can remember, writing a post or updating a page in WordPress was done through the visual editor built on TinyMCE. This experience has been a more consistent part of my life than anything else. I’ve changed jobs, left my home in Montana, made a new home in Seattle, and gotten married all while the WordPress editor remained unchanged. As of WordPress 5.0, that will change as the new Gutenberg editor replaces the traditional publishing interface. This means that we’ll go from the ubiquitous WYSIWYG editor:
to one that looks like this:
And is based primarily on the notion of “blocks.” Every discrete piece of content (paragraphs, images, embeds, lists, blockquotes, etc) is considered to be a content block in Gutenberg.
As this is not a post that’s designed to be about the differences between Gutenberg and the current experience, I’ll skip over most of those details, but if you’re really interested, I’d advise visiting Testing Gutenberg where you can play around with a demo of the new editor.
The first inklings that the editor as we knew it was on its way out was January of 2017 when Matt Mullenweg (WordPress’s benevolent dictator/founder and Automattic’s CEO) posted on WordPress core’s development blog that the editor was a primary focus for that year. In the nearly two years since, the GitHub repository that hosts the current iteration of Gutenberg as a WordPress plugin has seen over 8,000 commits and 300 contributors. The team behind Gutenberg represents some of the most committed and talented WordPress developers, and more join the ranks of contributors every day.
Gutenberg has also been the subject of countless posts that vacillate between critique, praise, and everything in the middle. While the introduction of WordPress’s REST API was no stranger to controversy, the forward-facing nature of this change has opened the discussion to the entire community. The WordPress community has grown far beyond freelance developers and solo bloggers looking for an easy solution to setting up a site. It now includes small businesses, Fortune 500 companies, digital publications, e-commerce shops, newspapers, and countless agencies, plugin/theme developers, and entire marketplaces.
WordPress enjoys a marketshare unlike anything before it with 32% of the web and nearly 60% of all sites that use a known content management system relying on the open source project. If Facebook is the town square of the internet, WordPress is the roads and sidewalk, and like the roads and sidewalk of any city, if there are potholes or uneven edges, people will complain and complain loudly. Unfortunately, there is plenty to complain about with Gutenberg. Automattic’s accessibility lead just resigned amidst complaints that the project was leaving behind the central tenants web accessibility standards. The documentation of the APIs and ways to interact with the new editor are sorely lacking. The core team’s attempts to engage the community have been ham-handed at times.
The list of grievances against Gutenberg could go on and likely constitutes a post unto itself, but one thing is certain: Gutenberg is merging into core whether we like it or not. The only question left is when.
Practically, what does this all mean? Ultimately, that depends on your situation. Many site managers, agencies, and plugin/theme developers are scrambling to activate the Classic Editor plugin (which deactivates Gutenberg) to avoid the onslaught of hard conversations between them and clients as various pieces of functionality may break with the introduction of the new editor. Others are diving headfirst into creating new blocks and building entire themes around the experience. However, if you’re like the majority of website owners, the update will come as a surprise as one day (thanks to the curse and magic of automatic updates) the visual editor updates to Gutenberg.
At LexBlog, this is clearly a huge deal. The vast majority of our clients interact with the post editor and only the post editor. We are, after all, a community of publishers. Fortunately, we’re also a company that’s built our platform on WordPress, and we take new technical developments quite seriously. Over the course of the past two years we’ve reduced the number of third-party integrations that touch the WordPress post editor, limiting the chances that a third-party solution that hasn’t updated to integrate with Gutenberg will cause an issue for our customers. We still have a few third-party plugins that interact with the post editor, but they’re among the most well-known plugins (such as Yoast) or developed by highly regarded individuals (Co-Authors Plus) and have already been updated to support Gutenberg.
For our own plugins and themes, we’ve gone through a multi-pronged approach of:
- Front-end visual regression testing (just to be safe)
- Extensive review of our codebase for integrations with the existing editor
- Functional testing to unearth issues
We’ve certainly found problems and are working to address them (or have resolved them already). Unlike many site owners, we’re fortunate to have a great team who are capable of finding problems, organizing them, and fixing them one by one. We’ve activated the Gutenberg plugin on our internal properties (including this one), allowing our entire company to get used to the new interface and find issues before our customers do.
We will also straddle the line that many are walking, only perhaps with slightly different motives. At LexBlog, we’ve long believed that our customers are not guinea pigs for new changes, but instead take a pragmatic approach where we allow the broader community of users and developers to find issues and solutions for such developments. This will be no different. While the proposed WordPress 5.0 schedule has targeted a November 19th launch date (with an alternate deadline where 5.0 is shipped January 22nd if some project slippage happens) LexBlog will delay the introduction of the Gutenberg interface beyond that, activating the Classic Editor plugin and working with our customers to slowly introduce the new interface. This should help eliminate confusion and give our authors a safety net for learning how to use Gutenberg.
How exactly we go about this is still a work in progress. There are many of the pieces of the puzzle we’re still working on, and those pieces will shift and settle as the picture from the core WordPress team crystalizes. Until then, stay tuned!