Matt Mullenweg’s Summer Update at WordCamp Europe 2019: Gutenberg’s Progress and a Preview of Upcoming Features

image credit: WCEU Photography Team

Matt Mullenweg took the stage at WordCamp Europe in Berlin this afternoon to give a summer update on the progress of the block editor. He attributed much of its continued success to the availability of the Gutenberg plugin, which allows for quick iteration and testing. More than 150,000 posts are published per day using the block editor, which Mullenweg said is “a testament to the long development period” that gave the team an opportunity to work out bugs and make it usable for a large number of people.

Since its initial release, the block editor has added a host of notable improvements, including block management capabilities, a cover block with nested elements, widgets as blocks, block grouping, and snackbar style notices.

Mullenweg highlighted a few beautiful and innovative examples of Gutenberg in the wild. Two projects from Human Made showcase Gutenberg-powered designs (artefactgroup.com) and an AI integration that analyzes a user’s writing in the editor (ingenuity.siemens.com.)

Election season is ramping up in the U.S. and Gutenberg-powered sites, like hurst4delegate.com, are starting to pop up. Mullenweg noted that 21/24 of the current democratic candidates for President are using WordPress for their sites. Whitehouse.gov also switched from Drupal to WordPress earlier this year.

Mullenweg also gave a quick preview of some of the upcoming Gutenberg features that are currently being developed on GitHub. Most of them are still in the prototype stage. The team is creating a system to install new blocks online, which will tie into the planned block directory. Mullenweg said Blocks could become a new top-level menu item in the WordPress admin, with screens dedicated to block discovery.

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He showed demos of the navigation block in progress, a prototype for adding realistic motion to block movement, an experimental footnotes block, and a demo of resizing images with “snap to grid” capabilities. Mullenweg said one of the goals with Gutenberg is to “make it possible to create beautiful experiences, because that’s part of what the web needs to win.”

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Mullenweg also gave an update on Gutenberg’s progress in the mobile apps. He said the new editor is operational but development is slow moving because the mobile engineers essentially have to duplicate all of the work that has been done by hundreds of Gutenberg contributors thus far.

Q&A Highlights Governance, Core Maintenance, and the Future of WordPress Themes

The Q&A portion of the session featured a variety of topics, ranging from an aggressive tirade about licensing and Envato, to more relevant inquiries about the future of WordPress themes. While this format of interaction has its shortcomings, it gives community members the opportunity to check on the status of issues where they have a particular interest.

One attendee asked if WordPress.org plans to implement a more democratic structure for decision making. Mullenweg seemed to interpret the question as referencing a system where tens or hundreds of millions of WordPress users would participate in making decisions on features through a vote or some other form of feedback. In contrast, he said WordPress’ current approach is for leadership to try to get a sense for what the most common issues are through polls and public channels and allow those issues to help shape the project’s roadmap.

Mullenweg shared that one particular issue on his mind right now is the problem of “how do I make my theme look like the demo?” He said contributors are experimenting with different types of models for making decisions that move WordPress in the direction to solve these types of problems.

He said that the project’s decision making is fairly transparent, without a lot of mystery, and that the community has tons of feedback mechanisms. This is a somewhat controversial claim, as regular project contributors have expressed frustration with the lack of communication surrounding important planning and decisions, such as release dates and project timing, as it pertained to how WordPress 5.0 landed. The community was frustrated by a lack of effective ways to communicate critical issues and complaints to project leadership. As a followup to this specific feedback, Josepha Haden, the new Executive Director of the WordPress project, has been diligent to track and communicate how leadership is working to improve communication.

Another attendee asked if WordPress themes will become obsolete after Gutenberg gains more site-building capabilities. Mullenweg predicted they will always be a part of WordPress but seemed inclined to let the market decide the fate of themes.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They are going to change for sure. I don’t think they ever go away.” He said he could see developers offering an array of different designs that could be used as a starting point. Although a WordPress theme has a very specific definition right now (as far as what types of files are included), Mullenweg said he can see that definition evolving over time. He said he could see themes becoming like a starter template or a library of patterns to choose from, or even a set of complex layouts that could work across different themes.

“I think we’re going to decouple themes a little bit but I don’t know how or what that will look like,” Mullwenweg said. He also noted that a lot of themes right now represent a similar aesthetic, often business minimalist that use white and blue colors. Design trends have the potential to shift dramatically as Gutenberg and themes evolve to allow users more control over how their sites are designed.

It is no secret that the WordPress development community is eager to switch to GitHub or another Git-based infrastructure for core development. Most of the recent feature projects have successfully matured on GitHub, with the majority of work and discussion taking place outside of Trac. One attendee asked about the possibility of moving away from Trac in the near future. Mullenweg said that this year the team that works on WordPress.org is prioritizing changes to the directory, but in the meantime anyone with Python knowledge is welcome to contribute to tweaking Trac for improvements in the interim before WordPress moves to Git-based development.

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In response to a question about blockchain technology and WordPress, Mullenweg said he has long been an enthusiast in this area and loves the idea of open source applying to money, as well as having a distributed ledger.

“But I can’t think of any problem in core WordPress right now that the overhead of a blockchain would really improve,” he said. “Everything I could think of right now would probably be plugin territory.” However, he said that the WordProof plugin’s timestamping WordPress content on the blockchain is among one of the best ideas he has seen for this technology so far.

When asked how he plans to “balance chasing the new and shiny with all of WordPress’ existing legacy APIs,” Mullenweg said that “PHP is going to be crucial to us for many years to come.” He recognized that the project has fallen behind in maintenance with some of its older APIs but that work on Gutenberg can be done in parallel.

The new triage team is currently going through all the tickets, refreshing patches, and working on taking them to resolution. Mullenweg noted that WordCamp Europe hosted the first ever triage table at its contributor day and said that this new area is ripe for contribution.

The REST API, despite its broad support and noteworthy contributors, is one area that Mullenweg said has held Gutenberg back. He said it still does not have the demonstrated use that its advocates predicted when working to get it merged into core and cautioned that WordPress should always use an API first before shipping it to the world.

Mullenweg concluded the Q&A by estimating that Gutenberg is only 10% of the way down the road towards solving the problems that WordPress contributors set out to tackle. He predicts that building on this initial effort will carry into the next decade.