Matt Mullenweg on the Gutenberg Editor, Feature-Focused Releases, and More [Interview]

At WordCamp Europe 2017 in Paris, I had the opportunity to sit down with WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg for an interview on feature-focused releases, The Gutenberg Editor, niche WordCamps, and more.

During the 2016 State of the Word, Mullenweg announced the move away from scheduled releases, toward a feature-focused process, specifically focusing on three major areas: The Editor, The WordPress REST API, and The Customizer. By eliminating the pressure of a specific release date, WordPress can make more revolutionary changes to the software.

The Editor, nicknamed Gutenberg, is a product of the new feature-focused process. The Gutenberg-focused release aims to dramatically improve the user experience of WordPress and eliminate existing barriers to adoption by overhauling the WordPress editor experience. Gutenberg, which is currently available for beta testing as a plugin, is slated to potentially merge with core in WordPress 5.0.

Mullenweg, who is also the release lead for 2017, noted that he has been thrilled with the progress of its development over the last six months. With the majority of the developer firepower focused on Gutenberg, its development has been dramatically accelerated. With a clearly defined focus, Mullenweg explained that “we’ve done so much more in the last six months than we were able to accomplish over the last two years. So I am thrilled with how that’s going.”

I asked Mullenweg if there were any trade-offs with the shift towards feature-focused releases. “We haven’t had any big tradeoffs,” he said. “It’s actually been really great so far as we were able to release some big user improvements in a relatively short time-frame.”

According to Mullenweg, there have also been other unexpected positive side effects. “What ended up happening is, because Mel Choyce and Weston Ruter are waiting for The Editor to be done before they start the next generation of The Customizer, they were able to identify some gaps in the user experience that, with relatively little effort, can have a big impact,” he said.

In its current state, WordPress makes you learn several new concepts during the user on-boarding process – short codes, widgets, etc – before you can start creating content. These present some pretty big barriers to entry for new users . “These are huge barriers – but many of them are so easy to fix… The WordPress 4.8 release definitely addressed some of these barriers but we’ll see even more improvements in the upcoming releases,” said Mullenweg.

The Gutenberg Editor will eliminate the need for shortcodes and custom HTML to create dynamic content. Instead, the new Editor takes a block-based approach, in which each block contains a particular type of content. This allows users to drag and drop in different content types to build a dynamic experience. We have already started to see these improvements implemented in core – with WordPress 4.8 featuring new drag-and-drop content widgets.  This improves the on-boarding experience as new users need only to learn how to use blocks.

With content creation at the center of WordPress, improvements to the editor will have huge payoffs for the adoption of WordPress. I then asked Mullenweg if the intent was to compete with Squarespace, Medium and Wix.

According to him, while WordPress does compete with Wix and Squarespace, “these improvements allow WordPress to leapfrog where Squarespace, Wix, and Medium are today,” Mullenweg said. “Medium is about five to six years old – so some of it is based on old technology,” he added. This presents an opportunity for WordPress to provide an even better user experience, informed by the likes of Squarespace and Medium over the years.

As an open-source project, WordPress also benefits from the power of collaborative development. “There’s already been participation from dozens of contributors and that number will move to hundreds once we get the plugin out,” he said.

The community reaction to Gutenberg so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Many see it as revolutionary for the WordPress editor experience. Gutenberg will allow users to have the best of both worlds: “They will have a beautiful, easy-to-use editor that also allows you to build dynamic web experiences — it’s going to be amazing,” Mullenweg said.

The WordPress 4.8 release included a new dashboard widget that features nearby WordCamps and meetups as a way to encourage WordPress users to get involved with the community. It was also a result of feedback the core team had heard in regards to users not knowing where to get involved. I asked Mullenweg about the future of WordCamps as it relates to topic-focused events and how he sees them evolving in the future.

“I think we got to the point where we were too rules-based and now we’re starting to open up the process and be more agile in the approach to WordCamps,” Mullenweg said.  “We can start to think about regional WordCamps and topic-focused WordCamps… we want to think about which WordCamps make sense to move the community forward,” he added.