Shackling a free market: WordPress canonical plugins

In matters of criminal investigation, intent can be proven by certain actions. However, in these cases, there is a jury to be convinced and a victim to be vindicated. Thankfully, when it comes to disputes in the tech community, one need not try to prove intentions through actions. One need only ask. Following the remarks from yesterday’s WordCamp Atlanta, where a trial balloon was placed in front of the world—this is the internet; everything local is global—about “canonical” or “endorsed” or “core” plugins, I must ask the WordPress lead devs, all the way up to Matt himself: why?

I’m not a plugin developer, nor a theme developer, or a pure front-end designer. I honestly don’t know what to label the gestalt of my skills, but I do good work. Part of that good work is being able to select which plugins work for my project requirements. While I truly appreciate the good intentions of the WordPress leadership in bundling plugins together and endorsing them, but I have my fears on its effects on the plugin marketplace.

It’s libre in more ways than one. Let’s keep it that way.

The current state of the marketplace follows the standard distribution of players based on power laws. Right now, very good plugins with even better promotion and marketing dominate the marketplace. Is there a better plugin for a given application? Yes, but for reasons beyond the control of the WordPress leadership, they don’t get as much exposure. These reasons vary. The developer may be an asshole. Updates may not be frequent enough to keep up with WordPress’ own development cycle. The plugin may be very esoteric in application. Whatever the reason, this hypothetical “better” plugin lives and dies without the interference of the leadership. The only thing more American than the WordPress plugin and theme marketplace is apple pie.

Releasing canonical plugins and themes, while making it easy for end-users and new adopters, interferes with that dynamic. Today, If I were to release Richmond—the theme running this blog—into the wild, I will have to compete with the awesomeness of Studiopress and Woothemes. If the WordPress Project were to include a theme similar to mine, not only do I have to compete with everyone else, I’d have to compete with God Himself.

“Canonical” “anything” is a takeover of a market that doesn’t need it.

I’ve always defended the WordPress Project and especially Matt himself from accusations of others that he’d rather not let anyone else make money off of this. Mark Jaquith is proof positive that one can make plenty of hard-earned cash from playing within the rules of the open source game. However, these “official” add-ons are a deathblow to innovators, because WordPress’ expansion has evolved the market into a consumer one.

The bar to entry is low: it’s easy to set up a blog, find cheap hosting, map a domain name, etc. The users, however, have gotten lazy. When only 75% of users at a WordCamp are using the latest versions, we have a problem. Using a simple extrapolation—of course, not a statistically perfect method—of that number, assume 15% of the market is running outdated, insecure versions of the software. That’s a huge problem, considering the number of WordPres blogs out there. While I strongly believe that it’s one’s responsiblity to maintain and update a site, that assumed number is that of irresponsible blog-owners who present a danger not just to the reputation of the WordPress community but to the general online health of all online people.

These same lazy people are the ones who won’t be bothered to pick a plugin based on how it performs. They’ll reach for the closest solution accessible and go with it. In today’s plugin/theme marketplace, the market leaders may not be the best of best of the very darned best, but they come close. In tomorrow’s canonical marketplace, the majority of users won’t be bothered to move beyond that which is canonical. Why would they, when those selfsame plugins and themes carry not just the approval that a theme is safe, but that it’s endorsed by and is considered “official” by the WordPress leadership itself?

Leave us to squabble amongst ourselves.

God Himself limits the miracles He performs, because He has given us the ability to affect our world because of our will. The free market of plugins and themes is a beautiful thing. It forces the likes of Studiopress and Woothemes to innovate ahead of the market, or lose their edge. It forces me to refine my projects or lose relevance. The miracle of canonical plugins would end this. Perhaps not overnight, but it will. I implore the decision-makers at the WordPress Project: this is not change we need, nor is it change we can believe in. I understand that the opinions of end-users are important, but this still is a community-driven project, and a canonical marketplace—or better yet, a Command Economy—would have us fighting for the favor of the leadership, and not our clientele. That’s not a marketplace; that’s a clique.

Ma.tt responds:

Hey Jay! I’m always happy when you write about WordPress. :)

First a disclaimer: I’m probably one of the biggest free market nuts you know. In fact in college I focused on economics and political science/philosophy.

That said, I didn’t finish, and let’s be honest I wasn’t the most studious guy in the world. Maybe I missed something important. Although I’ve thought about this issue endlessly, including most of the issues raised here, there are some things brought up in the comments that I haven’t thought about before. More importantly, you could be right.

That’s why we’re doing this whole thing as an experiment; not the Large Hadron Collider type that could potentially destroy the universe, but more incrementally with just three initial plugins.

The first, health check, is one that’s entirely new, a collaboration between some existing core folks and some new contributors. The second is existing core functionality, post by email, that we’re taking into a plugin to make core lighter, faster, and less bloated. Hopefully it will improve significantly too because we’ve got some really cool new code from it being donated from the WP.com side. The third, PodPress, is an existing plugin that is very popular in the community and provides important functionality but has effectively been abandoned, so we’re going to adopt it and modernize it so people who rely on that plugin aren’t stuck on old versions of WP.

Something new, something old, something borrowed… something blue? Yep: Kubrick. :)

Now if in the course of working on these three plugins it looks like we’re going to cause the end of WordPress as we know it, we’ll change course. It’s not that big a deal, and we’ll figure something else out. The only dangerous course of action is doing nothing at all.

84 thoughts on “Shackling a free market: WordPress canonical plugins”

  1. The reason so many people are worried is because we’ve seen what happens when WordPress takes over something. Anyone remember when WordPress didn’t have tags built-in?

    Some developers spent some serious time making tags work well, and then they just got killed off because it was integrated into Core. You can’t say something similar won’t happen with Core plugins…

  2. Oh, one more thing… I absolutely love the idea of stripping features from WP core to make WordPress lighter. I’d be fine with features stripped from WP becoming core plugins.

  3. I think it’s great when things of real use are built into Core. As a developer of Pods, I’m excited to see Custom Post Types getting some core attention that it needs, but I know full well that it’s not going to replace Pods in any way for me or the community behind Pods. It’ll just mean that WordPress is catching up, and giving us the chance to take the next step ;)

    As for Core plugins, I think the idea of separating WordPress functionality (that’s used sparingly) moved into ‘Core’ plugins is a great idea. ;)

  4. “Shackling a free market” is poor phrasing. Free markets can’t exist without rules and regulations protecting it. Not sure how that applies to plugins market and core plugins tho. The only negative I see for developers is that (possibly) less direct traffic to their personal/business site, and therefor, less (potential) monitization (somehow). A free market theory would suggest the market would dynamically adjust itself to the situation.

    You may be able to tell; I’m for core plugins. Developers can join and participate in the core plugins and build a rep, which could lead to traffic and (potential) monitization.

    I prefer “socialism” to “capitalism” for whatever that means. The definitions keep changing and the context are all wrong.

  5. Hmm I’m not so sure stripped features should be core plugins either. If its sparingly used make it an ordinary plugin. Perhaps someone else comes up with a better idea on how to go about it.
    I like Chips idea of core components/modules maybe even make it easier to hook in external APIs and libraries for plugins or themes.

  6. There’s been some great discussion here, but it seems a little one-sided. Most of the people leaving comments are developers. What would make the conversation much better would be to hear from more end users.

    I will refrain from sharing my opinion until I can gauge what a larger portion of the user base is feeling because, quite frankly, that’s the portion of the community that influences my opinion the most.

  7. Sounds like a few big fish in the big pond will soon become big fish in a small pond?

    I’ve only been using WordPress for a few weeks, and loving it. I have been a FileMaker developer for several years and I can honestly say that the situation is reversed, FM developers have been crying out for years for certain plugins to become ‘core’. As a newbie to WP its difficult to say whether it will improve/restrict WP but I can tell you I spent HOURS(!!!) going through all the plugins building my first blog, then tweaks, and and and… If canonicals are as good as some a purporting I reckon i could have built two blogs in the same period just on search and select time savings alone..

  8. Hi…
    generally, I’m more on the “let’s try it out” side, so off the cuff, I like Matt’s approach. As a spare-time blogger and wannabe blog operator, I also sympathize with anyone who will help me sort through the forest of plug-ins. Generally, I do believe in free markets. But unlike products in real markets, software does not die, it lies around stale until somebody explicitly kills it. Especially if there is a good repository infrastructure. So, the market is imbalanced from the outset. There is no undertaker for the dead, so something needs to be done about it. Who will help a wannabe like myself take the right (and with “the right”, I’m mostly concerned about security) plug-in choices? To make the situation worse, there are as many WordPress specialists as there are plug-ins, or even more. Where should a beginner put his trust?

    So, all in all I think this is a worthy issue to address and I’m open to trying this approach for a solution. It definitely fits my personal needs.

    That said, there’s one fatal catch: Feedback cycles.

    Do we know how long we have to wait until we are certain that the three test-plug-ins didn’t harm the ecosystem in their respective niches?
    For now, I’d assume that the three guinea pigs will be top of the notch. But – as so many others have pointed out – sooner or later, there will be potential for innovation in these niches that is not covered by the “core” plug-ins. Anyways, it will take time for this potential to grow and reach critical mass. With a “Core Plug-In” label to compete with, we significantly raise the level of innovation potential needed to make it worth the while to write an innovative, competing plug-in.
    My guess is that it will take many years until such an effect actually occurs.

    And then, we won’t experience that effect for a long time. Because this effect doesn’t manifest in something happening. It manifests in non-happening. Over the years, less and less ideas crystallize into plug-ins. Worst case, more and more WordPress users will slide into a consumer attitude.

    There are so many projects which went that way.

    So, recap: Making the plug-in forest navigable for beginners is a cause worth our … honestly: your attention.
    Going for the “core plug-ins” is risky business.
    I also do not believe in the “wisdom of the crowd” (aka rating mechanisms) to resolve that issue.
    What else can we do?
    I could imagine that an award does the trick: I’ve been guided by the weekly “WordPress Theme Releases” and “WordPress Plug-In Releases”. How about a number of regular “awards”? Could be quarterly, could be ordered by plug-in categories. Have all recent award winners in one place, that’s kind-of like the “core plug-ins”, but the award is dated and thus kind-of becomes stale. Suddenly, there is even an incentive to win the “best-maintained plug-in award for Q2-2010″, or the “best security innovation award for Q2-2010″ – and if I can’t make it in Q2, I can try again for Q3. What started out as “Core Plug-Ins” with the risk to slow down the ecosystem suddenly becomes an incentive for all plug-in developers to do even better. And because these awards are “just” a title, being generous with these awards (within reasonable limits) is OK.

    (needless to say: Thanks to Matt and everybody who has helped make WordPress in the first place!!!)

    Hope this helps!

    Best regards,

    Josef

  9. O.K., I’ve been an end-user since 2006. Great discussion – I wish tech bloggers raised critical concerns about WordPress issues more often. WordPress fanboyism gets old, much as I love the project and its cobbled-together, improvisational feel.

    Some of the concerns raised here strike me as very legitimate, and I’m glad Matt is taking them seriously. But I’m not sure that free-market ideology is the best lens with which to view open source development. Isn’t this really more of a gift economy? The vast majority of WP plugins are free, right? So why do you guys develop them — what’s your major motivation? Is it really just about getting your own name out there and competing with everybody else, or is there also the sense that you’re building something great together? Even if you work best alone — something I really identify with — isn’t collaboration rather than competition at the heart of this project?

    I think one reason why there are so many crappy plugins messing up the pool is because there are not enough rewards for writing good ones. So I tend to feel some sort of recognition should be afforded the best plugins. I don’t know whether that should take the form of a special label, or a prize system, or something else, but I think the process should be as transparent as possible and involve as much of the user and developer communities as possible.

    Just today I started a weekly podcast, and here I am trying to decide which of the major plugins to use — or do without a plugin (other than the 1-Pixel Out audio plugin). So I must admit I was very happy to read in Matt’s comment that Podpress will be one of the first three core plugins. That’s the kind of security I’m looking for. Yes, I *could* learn how to edit the RSS feed directly, but I don’t want to. I’m a writer, not a geek. And I can’t help but worry what will happen when I spend a lot of time and entrust a lot of content to one plugin.

  10. Hi, I’m not a plugin developer but I’m a webdesigner and I use wordpress for client sites.

    I’m all for Core plugins!
    I really don’t understand why you all are afraid.

    There will not be 100s core plugins but just some and it will not address all possible features. So the 7000+ plugins will just go up.

    The problem I’m facing right now with wordpress is that I usually make CMS type websites and they usually rely on some cms plugins that let me create custom write panels and fields…
    Some of this plugins (More Fields and flutter) are really great but they are not being updated…
    So some of my clients sites just can’t be upgraded to 2.9 (that’s the real reason people don’t upgrade).

    What can I do, I ask. Nothing!
    There sites are confined to WP 2.8.

    If there was a Core plugin for this kind of functionality I would be able to upgrade their sites and keep up with WP version.
    There are some kind of plugins that you totally rely on when building a website, if the plugin is not upgraded, the site is killed.

    How can you tell a client that it happened and they need to pay you $$$ for you to remake everything using another plugin and they also will need to re-enter all text and stuff they published?
    And all that just 2 or 3 months after you finished the site.
    And after all good things you told the client about wordpress being the best CMS platform out there (because the client only heard about Joomla and asked you to use it, or they heard about .NET as the best technology and wanted you to make a .NET website).

    You are in real trouble!
    The client will just think: this WordPress stuff is crap.

    So I’m with Justin on this one. The people that are really important are the end users. All of us must think on the end user first.

    And the end user wants good plugins that works and are kept alive!

    One more thing: I can’t understand what’s the problem of developers joining forces and working together on professional grade, quality plugins.

    If they don’t create Core Plugins I can tell you that in less than a year all good, quality plugins will become Premium, and then this will be a Real problem…

    PS: If theme developers and plugin developers can Label their stuff as Premium (this word really means that it’s better than others out there) why in this world core developers cant label their plugins as Core Plugins? Why?
    The Core label doesn’t mean that it’s better, I just can’t say the same for Premium…

  11. @Victor

    all good, quality plugins will become Premium, and then this will be a Real problem

    Because, obviously you aren’t getting paid to build your clients sites.

  12. @Barry:

    I don’t have any problems with Premium plugins and themes.
    Everyone must be paid for their work!

    But on the OpenSource world people really feel good giving back to the community. That’s how it works…
    But it doesn’t mean that you can’t sell your work, yes you can and I’m fine with it.

    But I think Premium plugins developers should also be fine with Core plugins.

  13. I develop both free and premium plugins. And I am totally against Core plugins. To be precise I am against labeling plugins this or that by the WordPress team. Many WP core developers have developed plugins, and will do so in the future, and I have nothing against that. But labeling theirs plugins is favoritism and is not fair to all the other developers.

  14. I had a good chat with Carl Hancock and he helped me see the crux of the objection: that it might be a two-tiered system where Core plugin developers thrive and all other repository plugin authors are deprecated, 2nd class, etc. I understand this concern, and part of the challenge is presenting this in a way that doesn’t present the other repository plugins as inferior. We’ll have to highlight the benefits of both. As a quick brainstorm, Core plugins will be safe and stable, but limited in scope and probably a little bit boring and not completely full-featured. The plugin repository offers you near-limitless choice, plenty of niche and advanced (“pro”) plugins, but stability and security are hit-or-miss.

    We don’t want to kill the free market for plugins. That would be a monumental mistake. If that starts to happen, I’ll be the first one to reach for the emergency brake.

    1. @Mark Jaquith: Also I do want to make this clear: never in my post nor here in the comments did I impugn the intentions of the lead devs. Michael Torbert and other commenters have made it clear to those who assigned malicious motives to the decision that that is out of line and it’s not the point of this discussion. I was drawing attention to the possibility of unintended consequences, and I think the discussion here has done exactly that. Like I said before, your comments, and those of Matt, have been reassuring.

  15. Mark, I appreciate you dropping by again after all the comments and after the inital firestorm has died down. You know that I wrote this to express my assessment and concerns and that I found it important that it be discussed and assessed in a non-accusatory manner. Without lifting my own bench, I believe I was able to do at least that.

    I was amazed at how quickly the discussion died down when Matt himself stopped by. He was able to put everything into perspective, and allay any of my fears. Everything you and Matt stated here have been very reassuring. I know that Automattic releases plugins all their own without ending the market in plugins for similar functionality. So, yes, this commitment to restraint is reassuring.

    Off topic: please don’t kill Dolly for version 3, nor Classic for that matter.

  16. never in my post nor here in the comments did I impugn the intentions of the lead devs

    Of course. When I say we don’t want to kill the free plugin market, I mean both that we don’t intend to kill it, nor would we idly let it occur as an unintended consequence.

  17. Good post, good way to kickstart a civil, thoughtful and pointed discussion (it’s my roughshod definition of a “good” one). However, one comment and one casually off-topic remark:
    – I’m not sure that running a non-current WP version equates running an insecure version. Not wanting to sidetrack, and to savagely simplify: some innovations aren’t appreciated. It’d be awesome to have maintenance release forks, where security issues only are addressed so as to keep users happy and safe; it wouldn’t be the only CMS platform to do so. Community-supported software should, I think, at least contemplate this. Either way, and even in absence of such a branched “secure versioning” tree, I don’t think it stands to reason that running an older version necessarily means making the internet safer for terrorists, or any such FUD language to that effect.
    – Totally off-topic side note: your site looks nice, but it would read much better with better contrast among text and background. I suppose negative (inverted) text is cool and stuff, but I get tired of hitting “select all” just to read stuff seemingly important enough to post it in the first place.

  18. It’d be awesome to have maintenance release forks

    This was discussed, and generally liked. The idea is that we’d support a version branch until there was a beta available for the major version two versions after it. So, for example, version 4.5 would be supported until 4.7-beta1 was released. I don’t like offering users a choice between security and stability, which has happened before, rather suddenly.

  19. +1 on that:

    I don’t like offering users a choice between security and stability

    (I.e.: I don’t like being forced to pick one)

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