Welcome back! In this second part of the interview with Matt Mullenweg, we cover:
- WordPress 5.7 features coming out in 2021
- How full-site editing will revolutionize WordPress
- Mullenweg's advice for theme developers so they can remain competitive
- His predictions for the future of open source and his thoughts on Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub
- Success tips for open-source developers and projects
- What daily activities inspire creativity and success
WordPress / Automattic Product Questions
WordPress 5.7 was just released on March 9. What’s a new feature you’re most excited about?
“[The work we continue to do on] block patterns,” Mullenweg says.”With WordPress 5.0, we introduced the Gutenberg editor – a major release – and this fundamentally shifted the way people interact with WordPress from being a document model to being these atomic units of blocks, like lego blocks, that you can build almost anything with.”
People can think of block patterns, he continues, as a conduction of these “lego blocks” quickly build a layout or a feature that would normally take awhile to do manually.
“With block patterns, you just get it all as one set. So patterns could be three columns with a picture and a bio and somebody’s name – kind of that layout, and you can repeat that over and over again.
“That’s kind of the fun thing now. Any website you visit, with Gutenberg, you can squint your eyes and re-imagine it with blocks. This puts incredible power in the hands of WordPress users because now they can recreate, with just clicking a few buttons, pretty much any layout they see on the web, or any functionality.”
Mullenweg imagines there will soon be “hundreds of block patterns.”
“If you’re building a new website with WordPress, you’ll just be able to scroll through them and sort of mix and match the ones that make sense or you are imagining to represent your website, and build websites,” he says, “probably in half or less the time.”
As for Gutenberg in general? He predicts it’ll become the new text-editing standard, “kind of like standard WYSIWYG or rich-text editing was over 10-15 years ago.”
You can already use it on your smartphones, and the team is working on making it even even more accessible for other projects.
“We’re actually exploring shifting the license from Gutenberg to be dual-licenses, so the GPL and the MPL, which is the Mozilla Public License, to make it easier for other projects to embed and use Gutenberg. This is because of increased demand from other apps to embed and start to use Gutenberg.”
Last month, the release schedule suddenly went up in the air. Do you still see WordPress 5.8 coming out this year on schedule? And do you still see full-site editing (or the concept of using WordPress to edit the entire layout as opposed to just what’s inside the page or post, essentially creating a theme using Gutenberg blocks) being released in WordPress 5.8?
WordPress 5.8, Mullenweg says, will definitely come out on schedule – but the plans for what’s in it may change.
Still, he feels “very comfortable” saying full-site editing will be released this year, with “more than a 50% chance of being in WordPress 5.8” if it meets the quality mark. If not, it “could definitely be in 5.9” which is scheduled for release towards the end of 2021.
He also points out full-site editing is already available for people to use and test now in the Gutenberg plugin.
“We’re doing a lot of user testing. We have tens of thousands of beta users using the plugin and just playing with it ourselves to make it better.”
While he feels comfortable saying full-site editing will be available sooner rather than later, he emphasizes making sure it’s ready and high-quality is ultimately the priority.
“If there is something you can gain from WordPress’ success is that we are ruthlessly iterative. Literally, we’ve had 100 releases of the Gutenberg plugin. People looked at the first version and said, 'Oh this is terrible, I am never going to use this.' But we’re like, 'Yeah it’s terrible, but we think you’re going to use it someday.' And we just kept making it better and better every other week, shipping new releases, doing more user testing, tweaking the design, until it gets to be something that people are not just tolerating, but really loving.”
Full-site editing won’t be treated any differently, he says.
“The trick is just getting it to the point where it’s good enough to have in a release, and we’re not going to stop working on it then,” he adds. “We’re going to ruthlessly, and relentlessly, continue iterating on it until it is the best website builder and editor in the world.”
Full-Site editing is a huge paradigm shift. What do you think this means for themes and plugins? What kind of advice would you give to theme developers to remain relevant and competitive?
Mullenweg reassures theme developers their skills will always be in demand.
However, he admits he’s not sure how much people are going to want to purchase pre-made designs as opposed to building something themselves. He notes the recently shipped Blank Canvas theme is now one of the most popular because users love being able to “build it up from scratch,” which is something each new WordPress release will just make easier to do.
“There will still be some of both, you know. People have been able to sew their own clothes forever but they still buy clothes. But it’s hard, I don’t know how to predict what percentage of users are going to go one way or the other.”
He believes there will be a demand for pre-made designs with just a click of a few buttons, but that it might be “more of a block-pattern or something else, than what we’ve traditionally called and packaged as a theme.”
The Future of Theme Development: NFTs?
In addition to programming skills, perhaps theme developers could remain competitive in another way: by potentially combining their artistic skills with NFTs.
“I’ll throw something out there: I think it would be fun to do something that combined theme designs with something like NFTs, have a design that’s completely unique, you could transfer or sell and another website could use that design. You know, the art and design of it I think is always going to be in demand, and there’s a value to scarcity there, so I am very curious to see how that evolves.”
Open Source / Open Web / the Future of the Internet:
A lot of major tech companies have been acquiring open-source projects in the past few years, which has sparked some controversy. I’d say the most notable was Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub. Can you tell us what your thoughts are about it, and this new trend we’re generally seeing?
“I think the Microsoft turnaround story is one to study for the ages,” he says, referring to Microsoft’s history of once being one of the biggest opponents to open-source.
“I’d say now they are some of the biggest contributors [to open-source] through GitHub, through so much of what they do, to the open source ecosystem. I even really appreciate how their cloud, Azure, in contrast to Amazon’s cloud AWS really tries to donate back to the open source projects that it’s built upon versus just sort of parasitically forking them or extracting value from them without putting back anything into it.”
He also thinks highly of Google’s contributions to the community, adding both tech giants have helped open source dramatically.
“I think that, Microsoft and to a good degree Google – through their open-source contributions, projects, everything – have accelerated the adoption and advancement of technology over the past 20 years probably by a factor of two.
“You know, when you think of somethings that we take for granted, like Hadoop – which came out of papers that Google released – there’s so much out there that as people share their research, their development and what they’ve learned with the world, it has advanced the state of the art very, very quickly.
“When you look at ElasticSearch, or GitLab, or even WordPress, we're built on the shoulders of giants and the work that Facebook, PHP, MariaDB, and even Oracle put in – it’s so much collaboration. If we were all recreating this from scratch, we’d be operating much more in what technology looked like in the early 2000."
Can you offer some predictions for the future of open source?
Open source will become the dominant force, Mullenweg says – a monopoly even, but the good kind.
"Open source can essentially evolve faster than proprietary software," he says. "Much like how Darwin didn’t say it was the strongest that survived – but actually the most adaptable of the species – open-source is essentially the most adaptable form of technology. That faster evolution and adaptation of open-source means that I believe it’s just inevitable that it dominates every single space it could go into.
"It’s inevitable over a long enough time frame, that essentially all crucial technology either has an open-source option or the open-source options become what I would deem a natural monopoly of having an 85 or 95% market share."
"I call it a natural monopoly vs unnatural because it’s a monopoly maintained not through like anti-competitive forces or anything, but just through everybody saying, 'Hey, why don’t we use this thing – because it’s free and open – everybody has access and ownership of it, so there’s no reason not to use it.'"
"It’s essentially showing that there’s a best practice that just becomes so naturally dominant because it works so much better than the other options," he adds, in the same way ideas like irrigation, Germ Theory, the wheel, and so on rose to dominance.
"I think it’s good to think of open-source more in the category of ideas [like irrigation or Germ Theory] than how we thought about in sort of capitalistic monopolies. I think we do it a disservice when we think of the coming dominance of open-source in the same category as those proprietary, sort of anti-competitive monopolies."
"This idea of natural versus unnatural monopolies is going to be a very important distinction as we shift our economic models from economics of scarcity to economics of abundance, where the digital version of something you and I can both have a copy of and neither of our copies are diminished by the other person having it. In fact, there start to be network effects, where more people are having something, the more valuable it becomes."
As a side question, you said that open source monopolizes and dominates every sector it enters. Do you think that could happen with social media?
“There are other network effects at play in social media that I think for the next 5-to-10 years of technology, will still lend themselves to perhaps being open source but still with centralization.
“There’s still often a need for a well-running network to have some level of moderation, some level of anti-abuse, anti-malware, anti-spam, that we have not yet figured out how to do really well, in a completely decentralized form. Even if you look to radically decentralized technologies like blockchain and bitcoin, it is interesting that things like a Gemini essentially are centralized portals into this decentralized world.”
What could happen with social media, he says, is there could be “a more decentralized protocol or backend, which there are user-friendly interfaces to.”
“I think that can actually be a really good mix, and the backend being decentralized and open also creates a strong competitive pressure on the centralized players, to not become anticompetitive. I mean, Gmail will become a lot less useful if you could only email other Gmail users, despite their dominance, so there is some level of interoperability that is enforced by the backend protocol.”
Could you offer some of the open source developers in our audience success tips?
“The biggest mistake I see most open source projects make is to underinvest in design."
Talk to your customers, but also bring in and incorporate contributions from designers and user researchers, he says. “The beauty in open source is in the collaboration. But if you’re just collaborating with other developers, you’re missing out on 95% of the power of that open source development model."
“To me, it’s the biggest difference as well between the ones I see that break out, and the ones that stay relatively niche, is the quality of their design."
Mullenweg particularly encourages developers to work on building an open source development where, “at an equal seat of the table, developers are the people writing the documentation, helping the forums, doing all those other things, translating the software, and running meet-ups.”
By doing that, he says you’ll get a level of feedback and knowledge that will turn your open source project into a success.
On what inspires him and helps him manage stress
Finally, I'd like to know what you do on a daily basis that inspires your creativity and success? And how do you stay so calm and grounded despite all the pressure?
Mullenweg essentially gave three answers: meditation, reflecting on one specific question, and books.
“I came to meditation fairly late in life in my thirties. Now I consider it indispensable.”
He recommends meditation apps – “Waking Up” from Sam Harris, Headspace, 10 Percent Happier, or Calm (an app he notes he’s an investor in), but emphasizes that whatever “works for you” is what’s ultimately best.
“I would say the practice of it is worth doing. The beautiful thing is there are so many different forms of meditation like mindfulness you can use that even if you’ve tried it before, and you didn’t like it, there’s probably a different version that will work for you. So I’d encourage you just to come back to it every year or two, and try a different form.”
"Whatever I’m facing – whatever problem or emergency – will getting really worked up or angry, or frazzled make me more able to address it or less able to address it? The answer is always pretty much 'less able to address it.' It sort of allows you to check and say, 'ok, well then why make myself less effective while facing this problem or this challenge?'"
Last, but most importantly, Mullenweg says reading books is what helps inspire him the most.
“I would say the most important thing, to me, and what I am working on the most as well, is just incorporating more reading."
He says he usually reads somewhere between 30-60 books in one year, something that was easy to do because – before COVID-19 – he was on a plane 2-4 times a week.
However, last year it was challenging to read that much because of the pandemic, and he read “only 19.”
He says reworking his routine amid the pandemic has been challenging with the interruptions of modern technology constantly getting in the way.
“It is challenging for me to get through things as long as I used to, and reading and meditation are both kind of things where you really have to focus. The best thing I’ve found so far is just doing it very first thing in the morning, so before I look at my phone, computer, or anything, I pick up the Kindle.”
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Sheena Vasani is a writer, creator, and UC Berkeley, Dev Bootcamp, and Thinkful alumna who writes Inside Dev and Inside NoCode. Subscribe to her personal blog here and follow her on Twitter.