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New Proposal Looks to Retire Older WordPress Default Themes

WordPress is approaching its 20th anniversary, and for the majority of those years, contributors have cranked out a new default theme. Even though the structure and supported features of default themes have drastically changed over the years, contributors are still actively maintaining all 13 of the “Twenty” themes.

A new proposal on recommends winding down active maintenance on older themes and implementing a new system of requirements for retiring them.

“The level of effort to support 13 themes is not insignificant, especially in the times of the rapidly evolving block editor,” Bluehost-sponsored core contributor Jonathan Desrosiers said. “The burden of maintaining these themes has historically fallen on the Core team to ensure they continue to receive any needed updates.” These tasks include things like ensuring compatibility with newer PHP versions, fixing bugs, updates and deprecations of dependencies, security updates, and much more.

“Because there are so many, it’s not uncommon for it to take several months before older default themes properly support newer features added in WordPress Core,” Desrosiers said. “Additionally, themes created prior to the existence of certain APIs are often unable to fully take advantage of these new features (global styles, block patterns, etc.).”

Desrosiers contends that reducing the support burden on contributors will allow them to focus on ensuring the most modern block-based themes deliver the best experience.

“It also helps clear the path for work on new block theme-focused experiments and initiatives (such as the Community Themes Initiative) attempting to refine the role that themes will have in the block editor era,” he said.

Themes released through the account via the Community Themes Initiative, like the recent Stacks slide deck theme, will be officially supported, adding to the load. These themes, however, have the benefit of working with the Site Editor and all the latest features WordPress offers. When dealing with limited volunteer resources, supporting older default themes doesn’t have as much upside as spending these efforts the more modern themes.

WordPress bundles the three most recent default themes in the latest download. This proposal seeks to retire older themes after a minimum of five years of support and when usage falls to less than 1% of all WordPress sites as determined by data. Using this criteria the default themes Twenty Ten through Twenty Sixteen would be retired and only receive security updates. Desrosiers suggests a yearly assessment of usage data to determine which themes would be retired.

The three most recent WordPress default themes would be actively maintained and contributors would continue maintaining the following themes with bug fixes, compatibility updates, and security fixes:

  • Twenty Seventeen
  • Twenty Nineteen
  • Twenty Twenty

The proposal has multiple benefits, in addition to reducing the number of actively supported themes from 13 to 6, but also has the drawback of affecting an estimated 730,000 users who will no longer receive maintenance on their themes.

General reception to the proposal has been positive, as those using very old themes are usually looking for as few changes to their website as possible. With security updates still available to retired themes, these users would not be forced to update to a newer theme.

The proposal was developed based on feedback and recommendations from a group of contributors. It is now awaiting feedback from the larger community. Unless the proposal needs to be significantly modified, contributors will soon move on to the practical tasks associated with retiring themes.