Is WordPress a development platform or a product?

I’m not sure if I’m thinking about the WordPress Open Source project and its “competition” the right way…

Two years ago, Alex wrote some thoughts about how we discuss WordPress as both a product and a platform with potential clients:

Some people view WordPress as a CMS platform to build on. They want us to help them create a website, service, etc. and they see WordPress as a platform that their idea can be built on […] On the other side of the spectrum are people who come to us viewing WordPress (and the thousands of plugins that themes that are available for it) as a product. These folks typically are looking to create a website with a certain feature set and may already have in mind a collection of existing plugins that they think may be useful for creating these features.

As you’re likely aware, the lines are blurry between WordPress being a “product” and a “platform” because WordPress means a lot of things to a lot of people now (even more so than two years ago when Alex wrote that article): WordPress.com is a different experience than downloading the Open Source package. WordPress that your roommate uses to blog about traveling abroad is probably set up very differently from WordPress that large publishers have customized for their daily use. Some sites use WordPress with no customizations and are very popular whereas some WordPress sites use many plugins and features and are quantifiably unpopular. Some companies run WordPress on their own web hosting servers whereas some folks may log in to WordPress installed on someone else’s servers. Some folks want to enable features and expect everything to work “off the shelf” while others anticipate needing resources to get their exact configuration in place. Some folks build businesses and platforms and products on top of WordPress, while others expect it to work as it says on the label. Sophisticated APIs can be created with WordPress, while beautiful photography portfolios can, too.

This means WordPress is up against a lot of competitors: paid services like Squarespace, free services like Blogger, other Open Source content management systems like Drupal, web development frameworks like Ruby on Rails, social networks like Facebook, etc.

I think this all leads to my point: making decisions for a “platform” can be much harder and much more different than a “product”. Does the WordPress Open Source project have “split personality” disorder based on its blogging (product) origins? Has it grown to warrant the kind of management and architecture decision making like a Ruby on Rails (platform)? Is it possible to exist both as a content management development framework and a publishing product?

That question is probably too hard to answer today.. maybe instead the point I was getting at previously is this: I think it’s worth defining “the competition” at the Open Source project level (are they products, services, or other platforms?) so that future design goals and decisions can be measured against it.

Without this kind of concrete direction, I feel that the project could experience severe cognitive dissonance and the product-platform chasm will only grow wider.

13 thoughts on “Is WordPress a development platform or a product?

  1. Mike Schinkel

    Hi Devin,

    Good take on this. Personally if WordPress were just a product I’d have no interest in it; the fact that it’s a platform is where the appeal is for me. Hopefully there isn’t a growing chasm there though, but we shall see.

    Reply
  2. Brook Reams

    Turning On Way-back Machine …

    In the 1980’s I made a living running a small custom software development company using a product/platform/IDE sold by a company based in Seattle, WA (no, it was not Microsoft, it was called TOM software). WP seems similar.

    The key to TOM’s business model was realizing that they could get paid multiple times for the investment in developing code and packaging it as an IDE (although those terms were not used in that era). They created developer tools around an extension of a known programming language, BASIC. They sold this to small independent software developers (like me) who wanted to write programs quickly, and to F1000 companies who needed to develop applications more quickly.

    Next, they created application programs on top and sold them as well. They also allowed companies like mine to sell these application programs. They also created a market for companies like mine to resell our software and helped us with marketing. Finally, they provided support, for a fee, to developers and to end users of their packaged applications.

    So, were they focused on programs, platforms or post-sale support? Who were their competitors? The answers differ depending on how you consumed their technology. I think they were stronger for having woven products, platforms, marketing services, and post-sale service together.

    So why did they die? Microsoft, in part, and the X-86 hardware revolution, in part, did them in. They weren’t able to compete against the very high volume and low price offered by MS on x86 (read that IBM PC and clone) hardware with Microsoft’s BASIC interpreter. They got “out scaled”. The cost of porting their IDE and applications to x86 with platforms was too much and took too long. So, their developer community invested in learning MS on x86 hardware and abandoned them.

    The business models and tools 25 years later are different, but the idea of integrated value that can be consumed in a variety of ways still seems interesting to me and perhaps applicable to the WP market. And, ensuring the platform can scale and is able to extend itself to the newest hardware and application development tools helps a lot as well.

    … Turning off Way-back Machine

    Reply
    1. Devin Post author

      Good perspective. I do think the WordPress project is doing a good job with scaling and certainly doing its best (as much as legacy ‘hold outs’ can allow) to keep up with the latest best practices, dependencies, etc.

      “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Burke

      Reply
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  4. Trevor Green

    It seems that WordPress.com is a service and wordpress.org is a platform. Which in general seems very unfortunate. As developers that sell solutions based upon wordpress.org, your selection of code bases and methods are not only competing with squarespace and other PAAS offerings. You are competing with wordpress.com.

    This becomes more apparent all the time as WordPress.com expands its offering and does so behind a walled garden. With a product like square space that is not as much of a concern, because developers aren’t encouraged to put all their eggs in a basket they don’t own.

    The tension comes in when you think about how the WordPress community moralizes about open source. With an open community sharing code you would assume that almost all players should be equal and next to none the “official” representatives. If that were the case the official portal for WordPress would be a gateway to people that provide things built upon open source. Instead the official port is a borg like entity that can consume all the code and ideas of the WordPress community with impunity and expand it’s offering to eventually make custom WordPress installs a fringe case.

    Is that bad? I don’t know, but it very disruptive. I would like to see a different model that values knowledgeable, independent, developers.A different CMS that is build upon some of the same simplistic principles and has the same approach to backwards compatibility. One that markets for developers and has plugins and themes in an app store model.

    Not necessarily one that doesn’t offer a hosted CMS product that is stable and optimized, but one that honors developers choice of that CMS by profit sharing on the service profit of any services they sell.

    An opensource project structure like a monarchy is not really open. It’s just a way for the central operation to get people to not go elsewhere and chip in their hard work for free.

    I think that they most honest decision would be for WordPress.com to sever itself completely from WordPress.org. Or just shutdown WordPress.org. So that all of the independent solution providers can put their energy into CMS’s that provide a growth trajectory for them instead of being lead down a path by open source moralizers that are going to gradually put them out of business. Or relegate them to content authoring or other non-technical pursuits.

    That being said, the community is with WordPress, even though it seems a unhealthy choice. So I’m going to stick with it for now. Maybe there will come a nosql cms based upon node.js that the community can get behind at some point that will be faster, more optimized, more portable and scalable and will be an open source brand from top to bottom, not just at the bottom.

    I like the model where your just launch a virtual server from a management service with the cms installed and pay for the management service but the core team stays away from the clients. They just provide it as a service that developers can roll with.

    Because you really should have more than WordPress offers out of the box as a platform anyway. Local Test, Staging, Production deployment, content staging and database migration. All doable with WordPress but really tedious. Love to see that built into a cms in it’s default configuration.

    So I guess my answer to your question is, I don’t know if WordPress.com can coexist happily with WordPress.org for much longer with WordPress.com very clearly staking out the territory that will always be for WordPress.org and stick with expanding it’s support product to make money instead of expanding it’s base offering and consuming more and more of the clients. Maybe they will do that. Videopress, Vaultpress, WordPress stats. Those are all nice (though the would benefit from revenue share. People that promote your product, sell for you, are not worth nothing).

    Reply
    1. Devin Post author

      I think there’s an interesting point to be made here, I’m not clear on what it means quite yet but I see folks talk about it quite often: the folks at Automattic run a service built upon the WordPress Open Source project (WordPress.com), they also have many individuals involved in the maintenance and steerage of the Open Source Project, they also potentially compete with other WordPress community members.

      It is hard to go up against the 800 pound gorilla if you wanted to compete in the same space, that’s for sure (video hosting, backups, stats) but businesses seem to be doing it. Market segmentation allows for it (WordPress.com cannot serve every possible user with every possible need). There’s plenty to go around…

      Reply
      1. Trevor Green

        Certainly people are competing, but saying there is plenty to go around doesn’t really speak to the identity crisis that design and development firms have to deal with. And it doesn’t address the relationship between WordPress and the community of people that promote it.

        Automatic, which essentially has full control over what is an is not committed to the “open” product has a flat vision of the relationship between WordPress and the people using it.

        That can be describe as WordPress and it’s users. There is no segmentation of those users. There is no “Approved” WordPress providers. There is no paid plugin support for developers.

        I suppose that is somewhat in line with their vision of making it easy for anyone to publish, not making it easy for people to hire someone to help them publish.

        Unfortunately if you think of it that way and you are a developer you are pushing a platform that will eventually consume all of the low hanging fruit. And unless you shift your business model away from technical pursuits you are left with nothing to do.

        That is the march of technology, so we have to accept that risk.

        I just think that the moralizing of open source opens up the conversation about what is right and what is wrong.

        And when people are trying to make a living it is wrong to devalue things that support the central business model. WordPress is build on a model of sharing. One where the community shares its support of the brand and uses the free product to lift up the brand, but the brand keeps the community at arms length. And then watches and cannibalizes it’s ideas and offers no direct participation in its revenue model.

        I’m all for open source, but I just want to see the next step where people rally around open source projects that don’t have a central source that is seeking to out sell it’s participants.

        The cms should be the common data backbone, the platform and all of the people using it to deliver solutions should create their own hosted value adds. Anything that goes back into the core should benefit them all. That is something that we should get behind.

        Not the illusion of free stuff that ends up costing your time and energy with no reward because the open source instantly devalues your creations as soon as you release them into the copyright-less wild.

        I’m not a true believer yet. And these discussions draw me in because as soon as someone starts moralizing about things I start to get suspicious about their motives.

        I don’t think that open source projects should be centered around feeding 800 pound gorillas. I think they should be more like the machines that a local business uses to make donuts. The machines can get better because we all participate and can make donuts better and faster. And not end up competing with the “official” maker of donuts. If open source is about anything it is about having something that is for everyone. If that is not the case then it is just about taking the free contributions of the lesser players and feeding them to the 800 pound gorilla. That doesn’t seem moral to me in any way. So the moralizing that I hear about it creates a strange dissonance in my head when I think about WordPress.

        I just wish that I could fully get behind something and feel like I was participating in a real movement. Throw me a bone. When I sell Vaultpress to a customer make me an affiliate and throw me a few bones every month out of the fees. Let me be a fully active participant. Other companies do it. Hell, Microsoft does it. If they can respect their channel what prevents a company like WordPress from respecting it’s advocates? Lets all hold hands and make it a happier world. Isn’t that the open source way.

        Or this subject can just keep coming up and developers can keep looking for another platform.

        I don’t know the answer, but I would love it if WordPress.com was retooled to respect the middle men that help people get into and work with it.

        Is that not something that you would get behind?

        Reply
        1. Mike Schinkel

          Hi @Trevor Green,

          I feel your pain. Let me tell a story that you’ll hopefully agree relates.

          In 1994 I launched a catalog business selling Visual Basic components mail order. We did so well the first 5 years we made it to #123 on the Inc 500, but then the web slowly eroded our business model and by 2006 we closed it down.

          Anyway when we launched there was a vendor of components who was generally considered the moral authority of the community, always doing and advocating for “the right thing.” He was an author of a very popular book for VB and had developed one of the more advanced components for VB. Let’s call him “John” for today.

          When I first approached John to advertise in our catalog he was very suspicious of us and put me through the ringer to prove we were ethical. And we were so we ended up having a great business relationship with John and his company over the years.

          Around 1996 we produced a printed newsletter called VB Tips & Trick for our customers and the first issue showcased a freeware component that did about 80% of what John’s flagship product did. We thought we were doing a great service for our customers and they would love us for it (kinda like how MailChimp’s customers love them.) And they did love us, for that and many other reasons.

          However as soon as John saw our newsletter he rang me up and chewed me a new you-know-what. He asked “How dare you publishing something free that competes with my product as I’m a paying advertiser?!?”

          That experience thought me a very valuable lesson. There are those people that the community around them views to be the morally righteous one and that’s how they see themselves too. And most of their actions confirm their moral righteousness. However, when it comes to what they see to be their territory they forget all about the moral highground and rationalize that they deserve special treatment.

          Note that I don’t blame people for this, it’s just human nature. Even the most righteous among us will rarely sacrifice their own interests when they conflict with the moral path. Further, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the moralizer’s actions are driven has external actors they have to please such as investors in the WordPress.com case.

          However throughout history there have been those to whom this human nature did not apply. Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa come to mind (funny, they are both from India. Not sure if there’s any relevance but I just now realized that.) I think we all want the actors controlling WordPress to rise above and apply their principles to themeselves like they do to others but I honestly don’t think it will happen. After all, it’s human nature not to.

          Reply
          1. Trevor Green

            Well said,

            Is there is another cms where the authors are rising above I’m curious about what it is? Any thoughts?

            I often think about trying to build something that is squarely aimed at partnering with professionals, or aspiring professionals, only. And is not setup to compete with them. But that is a large commitment to undertake.

            The problem with picking another cms is that you don’t know if they are on the same trajectory.

            Forgetting for a moment that the brand recognition of WordPress makes trying to sell clients on others solution really uncomfortable. Not to mention the time investment require to shift gears to different methods.

            I’ll like to hear someone come on here and try and defend WordPress.com as a member of the open source community. Now matter how many times I am confronting with this subject I just don’t see this instance of open source as anything other than usury.

            Using something that someone else created to make a profit without at least paying them minimum wage just seems like a scam.

            Am I against open source, I don’t think so. I just think you have to take it all the way to being equally community owned (no myopenproject.com squaters) or the morality of the community model falls flat on it’s face.

            I want to hear from someone that disagrees and why, because I don’t want to keep sounding like sour grapes if there is another perspective that I’m missing here.

  5. Frank

    Thanks for share your post. I agree also that WordPress are a platform. Only for a product was it not in my interests, especially for customer. Also a important part is the “open” platform, open for ideas, changes and enhancements. The live as platform of WP makes the interest and is the first point for all solutions, there I or my team create with WP.

    Reply
    1. Devin Post author

      I think this point is also what helped make it so popular and successful in the beginning. My point being: the challenge will bet to make sure to not steer away from what attracted people to it originally in order to chase after the competition (other blogging and publishing platforms).

      Reply
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