Will WordPress be a Plugin Business Killer?

WordPress core development has recently adopted a features-as-plugins model for incorporating large changes into major releases. This has come about largely in response to the WordPress 3.6 release, which saw its Post Format UI changes backed out late in the day. As a plugin developer wanting to keep up with changes that might affect my plugins I signed up for the core email updates. I followed closely as numerous feature plugins were initiated to address improvements needed in core. As soon as I heard about the Post Meta project, it suddenly became clear how precarious a position running a commercial plugin business based on WordPress really is.

When I talk about Post Meta here, I’m talking about the Post Meta developer’s experience from the back-end – creating input elements for meta fields in a programatic method. There have been a slew of libraries/frameworks/plugins (CMB, SCB, WPAlchemy, ACF, Pods), which have filled this role for the moment. We’ll look to these as spiritual prequels to a new core-worthy plugin

Nothing New

Of course plugin businesses built around WordPress have always been at risk, as is any business that relies on another. This is nothing new. Matt Mullenweg shared his thoughts at PressNomics 2012 around commercial plugins, advocating his ideal that, unlike themes which have value in being rare, plugins lose value being ubiquitous and therefore should be made freely available. It is clear that not everyone agrees with this. There are countless people making a living selling WordPress plugins and services around them, who can’t afford to be as idealistic as Mr Mullenweg, whose company Automattic is seeking a new round of funding that would value it at over $1 billion.

Brad Touesnard nicely sums up the balance for the normal guy between building free and commercial plugins:

Give away as much as possible while still being able to pay the bills.

Although he does highlight the risk involved in building a plugin business around functionality that could be rolled into WordPress, this is a risk that many take successfully.

So to briefly summarise at this point:

  • The co-founder of and most influential figure in WordPress believes plugins should not be commercialised.
  • As core development progresses over time, more and more functionality existing as premium plugins could be rolled into the WordPress core.

Is the premium plugin business doomed?

Enter VelocityPage

In January of 2014 something quite surprising hit the plugin market. VelocityPage was announced by Mark Jaquith, one of the highest profile WordPress core developers:

Wait, what?

This is a premium plugin with no free version, starting at basic license of $97. Clearly Mark didn’t get Matt’s memo about free plugins. The other surprising thing about VelocityPage is that the functionality it adds is not niche, it could be potentially be needed by any WordPress user to customise their site. Could this live in core in the future? Or does this prove the premium WordPress market has a future?

This release provoked further discussion on the topic that started at PressNomics. Carl Hancock, the founder of Gravity Forms, believes that core development should be naturally capped when it comes to areas of functionality that could exist as a viable commercial plugin:

In my opinion this should apply to the Post Meta project (formerly known as Metamorphosis).

Advanced Custom Fields

I have been using Advanced Custom Fields heavily in the past six months, following Elliot Condon’s progress with it and developing my own extensions for it. It is great to see a WordPress plugin grow into a viable business, with Elliot now concentrating full time on building the ACF business. Should Elliot be worried about the Post Meta announcement? Will WordPress kill his plugin business? In the short term, I don’t think so.

ACF has been downloaded almost 2 million times on the WordPress.org plugin repository and has a number of must have premium add-ons. Even if the post meta gets a complete overhaul that improves and crosses over ACF’s functionality, the possibility that a significant amount of ACF users switching to the core solution is slim. ACF is a well established plugin and brand, and this should stand it in good stead for a number of years.

The Future

Core development will roll on there is no doubt of that, but what does the future hold for premium plugins?

I believe there has to be a limit to what can be added to core and therefore which plugin business could be at risk. WordPress has to avoid bloat as a high priority. WordPress and its user base is so heavily invested in the plugin model that there will always be a need for commercial plugins, despite any crossover with core functionality.

About Iain

I am a WordPress and PHP developer building my own plugins and working with Delicious Brains. I like to blog about things, especially WordPress.

  • Great writeup on this. Thanks for the nice insight, and I do hope that the open, commercial market can continue to thrive

    • Me too! Thanks for reading and commenting Travis.

  • Great editorial, and nice to discover your site!

  • Ryan Hellyer

    I had a healthy (part-time) business piggy backing on a really crappy menu plugin I made. My business collapsed after menus were merged into core. There’s not much you can do about that though; just gotta roll with it and try to avoid building a business on something which may be rolled into core in future.

    • Definitely the right attitude to have Ryan.

    • carlhancock

      Most definitely. An important key thing for those wanting to develop commercial plugins to keep in mind is they need to focus on developing products, not features. Real software products. If it’s something that just adds a feature to WordPress, it’s something could be viable to roll into core. The exception to this would be things that are extremely niche.

  • Pingback: Will WordPress be a Plugin Business Killer? via @polevaultweb | The WordPress C(h)ronicle()

  • When products become features is a problem in any area and with any venture. It doesn’t matter whether you sell after-market car parts or third party plugins – a competent, free and integrated feature will scupper you. When most cars started to get air conditioning then the market for after market air conditioning disappeared… it also helped drive down the cost of the units meaning that those who did want it could afford it… so the end users didn’t care much about lost jobs and wealth in the air conditioning market because they got what they wanted, which was a cooler, drier car.

    As a business owner I used to fret and worry about these things until I decided to let go. We all need to accept that this is a risk and mitigate against it. It’s going to happen regardless of complaints or concerns raised because as long as it’s in the interests of more powerful people than you then it’ll happen.

    • Very true David, never a good idea to worry about things outside of your control.

  • As one of the original developers of CMB (and a user of ACF at times), I’m still glad to see this happen for things like post meta. Consider that Jetpack added basic forms a while ago, and Gravity hasn’t seen a drop off. If anything, it serves the lower end market and allows GF to focus on more complex functionality. Something as ubiquitous as post meta would be great to have a basic, standardized core setup so there’s better interoperability between different themes / plugins. Then people like ACF can go beyond that and offer something to make it easier / more flexible, etc.

    I get the AC analogy, but I think of it more in terms of coffee. There is your basic Folgers or lower end brands, then your Starbucks and Dunkin, and higher end ‘fancy’ coffees with unique tastes and processes behind them. I love coffee (big surprise) so I’m willing to pay a premium for the higher end stuff, whereas some people are perfectly happy with the low end. The market serves both, and serves them well. There are those who would never purchase the more expensive stuff, and others who won’t touch the cheaper stuff.

    • Can’t agree more, even if Core supported all the major functionality of the most successful premium plugins (which would be a horrible and bloated strategy and make many devs ditch WP altogether), there would still be the need for variety and competition in the marketplace.

    • Any point made with a coffee analogy is a good one! Seriously, I agree. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  • Devin Price

    Adding new features that the majority of users need will benefit almost everyone. WordPress sticks pretty well to the 80:20 rule (http://wordpress.org/about/philosophy/), which might be a good guide when deciding to whether to launch a commercial plugin.

    Features like the WordPress menus, featured images, custom post types would all have been viable as commercial plugins. The default themes (Twenty Ten – Twenty Fourteen) would all have been viable as commercial themes. But the project as a whole is much stronger because they’ve been built into core and developed in the open.

    As someone who struggled with the Settings API for a long time (and eventually developed an options framework to solve it), I think the post meta project can only strengthen WordPress. My guess is that there will still be a need for custom fields that solve niche implementations and Elliot will have no problem leveraging his plugin and business towards that.

    • Thanks for the comment Devin. By the way – congratulations on DevPress.com!

    • carlhancock

      To me a viable commercial product is just that. A product. Not a feature. If something is more of a feature, then unless it’s part of a collection of offerings it could be dicey to rely on it as a commercial plugin. Features aren’t products. Being able to manage the menus in WordPress is a feature, I don’t consider that a product. Ditto the Featured Image functionality. To me WooCommerce is a viable commercial product. Gravity Forms. Backup Buddy. Exchange. etc. Those aren’t features, those are software applications. I hope that clarifies some on my tweet that was quoted above.

      • Devin Price

        Hi Carl. I think small single-feature “products” are commercially viable as long as they serve a need in the market, but agree it would be dicey to rely on it as a sole source of income. In the context of applications like WooCommerce, Gravity Forms, and Backup Buddy- your quote makes perfect sense. Thanks for clarifying.

      • Thanks Carl, how do we differentiate between features and applications? Does a plugin change from feature to application when it becomes more complex, or does more stuff than the core? 🙂

        Sorry, not trying to insinuate anything, but just curious 🙂 I’ve personally invested in a large number of WordPress plugins, but I find those on CodeCanyon are 80-90% ‘features’, while those outside, like Pippin’s AffiliateWP and ThirstyAffiliates as.. applications?

  • Disclaimer: I am the lead on both the Post Metadata UI/API project and the Pods Framework. The metadata team is made up of a group of developers who either maintain or are experienced with well known and established custom field projects.

    The Post Meta project that’s going on right now is focused on writing an API to work with, that all plugin authors can use to build on top of. Currently, custom fields have a data API, but no form API or clear architectural relationship between field and content type. The focus is to fix that, while providing a suitable API to do the same for Users, Comments, and other object types in WordPress like even a potential replacement for the Settings API.

    It will even allow for use outside of just the admin context, where a plugin could use it to build their own forms and extend with their own object types.

    The point of all this, is to strengthen plugins out there and reduce the headaches of every API they’ve build being entirely different. With the new Meta API we’re working on (no, not metadata like get/add/update/delete) is for registering fields and forms to an object type. In the initial stage, that’s focused on post types, but the application is far reaching.

    Plugins like Pods and ACF will not die because of this new work, it is meant to let them use it so the developers don’t have to maintain their own custom APIs, which everyone has written on their own.

    We asked Elliot to join our efforts but he did not believe he could devote the time to it while supporting his own project, ACF.

    Take a look at how many free, freemium, and commercial plugins for Custom Fields alone. The number is staggering, and growing every week. There’s a huge and basic need here, we’re solving that and users and developers win. A better solid solution, one which will serve as the foundation of custom field plugins now and to come. The best thing is, like if you were using the Custom Post Type UI plugin, you can export to code and embed in your own plugin for distribution to clients, or just learn to do it yourself and avoid the weight of a custom field plugin which can really vary in size and speed.

    As a side note, VelocityPage is pretty cool, but there’s been only one project core worthy that has had any movement which introduces Content Blocks, but it’s no where near as flexible as this solution with it’s rows and columns support.

    — bottom line — having a feature in core will provide a baseline, one that plugins and themes continuously improve upon. Plugin businesses won’t die, but they won’t have to work as hard building it all themselves.

    • Hi Scott, thanks for you comment and clarity around the project. I am excited to see the future of this, which will certainly be beneficial to existing plugins in that space.

      • I can’t reiterate enough, there are a LOT of existing plugins in that space 😀

        This was a good post, you raise important questions and it’s healthy to discuss it. I’m hoping to see some more good points come up in the comments too.

        As with any business, you must always worry about competing products, the market, and platform you’re building upon. WordPress is ever evolving, but even if they roll up some plugin into WP core for custom fields and/or custom post types/taxonomies (like Drupal rolled up CCK, which is dramatically more than that), you can guarantee it’ll be a very lightweight solution, and probably based off of something already out now.

        WordPress is no Drupal, it’s user-oriented versus developer-oriented. So firms and developers will still find the right tool for them more useful than using core, and it won’t ultimately affect the custom field market other than raise the baseline of expectations. That would drown out a bunch of the smaller and non-maintained plugins, but you could say that’s a good thing when those already exist to fill a void in core, which every developer can share the pain with.

  • No, the commercial plugin business isn’t doomed. It’s not even under attack. These are a bunch of anecdotes that don’t paint a proper picture. Of course commercial WordPress markets have a future. Features-as-plugins has nothing to do with a land grab in the commercial (or even any old) plugins space. It’s not designed to change what we’d include in WordPress, just how we’d include it. It’s a glorified feature branch workflow, that’s it — it’s just using our rich plugin architecture and infrastructure to do rapid development, iteration, and experimentation.

    While some of the post meta discussions have touched on some fairly advanced aspects, we’re not looking to replace Advanced Custom Fields (which is awesome, by the way) or anything like that. All we’re really looking to do is build a better baked-in API for developers, because building a meta box using core APIs is the suck. A lot of plugin authors have been weighing in (including many who make commercial plugins) because they know how sorely needed it is, too.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Andrew. I understand the purpose of the features-as-plugins model, it just so happened that their announcement opened the window, for me, into future core development.

      The quote from the initial Post Meta post was what sparked the question “…which have filled this role for the moment.” but I can see the benefit of the project (as it is now) to strengthen core APIs and see it as a good thing overall.

  • Pingback: WPTavern: Why WordPress Can’t Kill Commercial Plugin Businesses | Marketing Online Comercial SEO()

  • Pingback: WPTavern: Why WordPress Can’t Kill Commercial Plugin Businesses | A2Z Web Design Tutorial()

  • Pingback: Why WordPress Can’t Kill Commercial Plugin Businesses | Magazine Demo()

  • Pingback: The Weekly WordPress News, Tutorials & Resources Roundup No.66()

  • Pingback: The Weekly WordPress News, Tutorials & Resources Roundup No.66 | Wordpress Themes()

  • Pingback: Will Premium Plugins Survive as WordPress Core Becomes More Feature-Rich? - ManageWP()