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
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?
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:
Introducing VelocityPage, my new WordPress plugin that adds front-end page layout abilities to any theme: http://t.co/9yCSegtryv
— Mark Jaquith (@markjaquith) February 1, 2014
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:
@greg_wallace If something has enough legs to be a viable commercial product itself than it shouldn't be in core. Core should be light.
— Carl Hancock (@carlhancock) February 2, 2014
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.
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.