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The Future of WordPress Plugin Development


WordPress is Everywhere

Over the course of many years building online software, I’ve noticed that there comes an inflection point when suddenly everyday people become aware of some part of it. WordPress is at that stage these days – with 20% of the web running on it.

As I was flying on my way to Cape Town, I took a flight from Los Angeles to London. The bartender on the plane not only had a side job doing video work, but he knew and loved WordPress.

But there’s a challenge when we see this level of ubiquity. Not a horrible one, but one we need to be aware of. I was about to put “in my opinion” after that, but here’s the thing, this whole post is my opinion. So instead of attaching that to every few sentences, just know that this is just one guy’s opinion. Ok?

Back to where I was – the impending challenge of technology ubiquity. I call it the “Nephew Challenge” and it will mean many things for how we think about plugin development.

The Nephew Challenge

So a CEO walks into a boardroom and sits with his executive team, which includes a technology expert. This tech advisor has spent years educating this room – helping them understand the technical complexities associated with their business. But today will be different. Because today the CEO walks in and tells them about some new technology (in this case, WordPress) and how it can solve all their problems.

Know why? Because the CEO’s nephew spent the weekend highlighting how awesome it was. Combined with the fact that this CEO has heard the word a few times already, a decree comes down – figure out what the nephew already knows, go get some WordPress!

I know it sounds silly. It sounds crazy. Things like this don’t really happen, do they?

Well, in my own personal history I’ve been handed the decree at least three times, including a time when I was told that XML would solve everything -all I had to do was use XML.

This would be the stuff of Dilbert’s cartoons if it wasn’t reality.

Gold Rush?

Some people have called the stage we’re in a WordPress gold rush. I get the idea, but I disagree. In the gold rush, replacing a pair of boots could cost you $2,500 – which is pricing that’s far from where our plugin developers are at. The tool vendors (merchants) are the ones that made a killing, not the miners.

But that highlights the main point of this post.

The merchants that focused on the miners were the ones that made the most money during the gold rush.

In the WordPress world we’re living in, the gold would translate to site owners. The miners would be designers and developers building sites. The merchants are the plugin developers (and theme framework builders).

Notice that the merchants weren’t worried about commoditization. Boots weren’t unique. The issue was supply. With the mad rush of miners moving into the area, they had to do whatever they could to keep supplying the demand.’s Barbara Maranzani writes,

“As the formerly tiny town began to boom, demand for lumber increased dramatically, and the ships were dismantled and sold as construction material. Hundreds of houses, banks, saloons, hotels, jails and other structures were built out of the abandoned ships, while others were used as landfill for lots near the waters edge.”

And that brings me to my predictions about plugin development in the future.

The Future of Plugin Development

When I think about discarded ships of the gold rush being sold to construction folks to build a variety of dwellings, I see the perfect metaphor for the future of WordPress plugin development.

Work with me here ok?

Remember our tech exec who was told to go follow the CEO’s nephew’s advice to use a specific technology (like WordPress)? What do you think he does? After grumbling for a few, he heads to his team and tells them to go figure out how to use WordPress.

They look at a bunch of plugins and don’t find anything that meets their specific needs. But no issues, they’re serious engineers. So they’ll do the very next thing that they always do – they ask for the APIs for each of these plugins so they can enhance and adjust them to meet their needs.

They’re the construction folks. They’re trying to build a variety of solutions. And they want to use the plugins that are available. But they have unique needs. And they have technical chops. But no education about “the way we do things.” But they don’t care.

I can hear you starting to debate me on how this should all go, but pause the debate for a second. Because you’d be like the ship builders telling the construction guys that they’re using their boats wrong. Trust me when I tell you they won’t care about our “you’re doing it wrong” messaging.

They want plugin platforms, not just plugins.

Plugin Platforms

If you’ve read the latest news from Gravity Forms about their latest beta release, you’ll see that they’re building a plugin platform. Their latest API will begin the process of letting others do even more on top of the base of Gravity Forms. Future versions will go further.

Ramp, by Crowd Favorite, is another plugin – one you may not know – that lets developers extend it for their own needs. It’s a plugin that’s already been used in the enterprise world and a model for how we might all think about things.

Other products like Easy Digital Downloads are also a platform in a different way – encouraging others to build on top of their base for extensions.

WooCommerce does the same thing, and in a recent interview with Brian Krogsgard I heard Mark Forrester articulate a clear focus on empowering the developers and designers in the WordPress community.

I’m not saying we’ve not already seen big companies check out or use WordPress. People have built custom plugins directly for customers already.

But as more and more of the enterprise world out there starts looking and considering WordPress, they’ll pull us into a different place.

A place where our APIs will be equal or more important than our plugins. 

A place where our products will be turned into something that looks really different.

A place where merchants will make more than miners.

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