WPTavern: Why Gutenberg and Why Now?
WPTavern: Why Gutenberg and Why Now?
Tevya Washburn has been building websites for more than 20 years and building them on WordPress for 10. He bootstrapped his website maintenance and support company, WordXpress, that he’s worked on full-time for more than seven years.
Late last year he launched his first premium plugin, and presented at WordCamp Salt Lake City. He lives in Caldwell, ID and is the founding member of the WordPress Meetup group in Western Idaho.
It was only a few months ago that I knew almost nothing about WordPress’ new Gutenberg editor. I had a basic concept of what it was and this vague annoyance that it would mean I’d have to learn new things and probably put a lot of effort into making some sites or projects work with it.
I kept hearing all of the frustration and issues with Gutenberg itself and the lack of information on how to integrate with it. At WordXpress we recently pivoted away from designing websites. When we designed them in the past, we used premium themes. I figured Gutenberg was the theme developer’s problem.
I still had this feeling of dread though, knowing many of my favorite plugins might not add support for it. I also felt some apprehension that even if the themes we use did add support for it, they might have a lot of new bugs through the first few releases.
Then I launched my first WordPress plugin, Starfish Reviews, and suddenly they weren’t someone else’s problems anymore! Now I’d have to come up with a plan to integrate our plugin with Gutenberg. I installed the Gutenberg plugin on a test site where we were testing our plugin with the nightly releases of WordPress and started playing around with it.
I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive and easy it was to use! Now it wasn’t (and isn’t) finished, so there were bugs and annoyances, but overall I was impressed.
Around the same time, I suggested we should have someone present on Gutenberg at our local meetup. My brief experience was more than what anyone else had, so the responsibility fell on me. Preparing for the presentation forced me to look at Gutenberg more carefully and pay more attention to the information and debate going on throughout the community.
I started reading blog posts, paying more attention in podcasts, and even looking at what was being said on Twitter. I watched the State of the Word at WordCamp US where the general tide in the feelings toward Gutenberg, seemed to turn, though many people still remain skeptical, critical, or antagonistic toward the project as a whole.
Today, I saw someone suggesting legal action if Gutenberg caused problems on their sites. That’s ridiculous on several levels, but shows that there’s still a lot of suspicion, frustration, and outright anger around Gutenberg.
A couple notes: 1. the graphs below are for illustration purposes only, they’re not meant to be accurate to any actual data. 2. If you prefer listening, you can watch my screencast version (13:12) of what follows. The message is the same, but differs in many aspects of presentation.
Finding the Why
Simon Sinek is known for his Ted talk where he explains that most people explain a new product or service by talking about ‘what’ it is and ‘how’ it works, but they rarely explain the ‘why’ behind it. The ‘why’ actually resonates with people the most. They want to understand the reason and beliefs behind it.
In my research, I couldn’t seem to find a clear answer to the most important question: “Why Gutenberg?” If I was going to present to people who knew little or nothing about it, I wanted to provide a reason why this major change was coming that might cause significant frustration, work, and pain for them.
I found a lot of ‘what’ and ‘how’ about Gutenberg. In some posts by Matt Mullenweg and Matías Ventura, I found hints about ‘why’ Gutenberg existed, but no really clear, simple explanation of why this whole project was happening. Why would Matt and others want to seemingly force this major change on us all? Why does it have to be such a radical departure from the past? Why now?
I was certain the conspiracy theorists—who seem to believe that Automattic’s sole mission is to make their lives more miserable—were wrong. But what was the purpose? Could it really just be a me too attitude that left all of these brilliant minds feeling like they had to keep up with Squarespace and Medium? That didn’t seem to fit. Especially since Gutenberg is already leagues better than Squarespace’s convoluted visual editor.
The Innovator’s Dilemma Book Cover
Taking cues from those hints and suggestions, I started thinking about the innovative disruption model. It was popularized in business circles, starting in 1997 when the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” was published by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor. His book was an expansion of an earlier article in the Harvard Business Review.
At the risk of oversimplifying the model, innovative disruption is what happens when an existing company who is the top dog (either in sales or market share) gets comfortable with their position at the top along with their revenue stream and quits innovating. They make small, incremental updates to their products or services to keep customers happy, but fail to look at the future of their industry.
This makes it easier for a startup or smaller, more innovative company to bring a new product or service to market that completely disrupts the existing market because it’s better, faster, cheaper. The established company doesn’t see the disruption coming because they feel secure in their large market share and steady sales revenue. They often respond with “why would anyone want that?” when approached with the new model that is about to completely upset their business model.
Blockbuster Gets Busted
The classic example of this is Blockbuster Entertainment, Inc. They had over 9,000 stores at one time, allowing people to rent VHS tapes and later, DVDs. They had a huge portion of the market all to themselves and it seemed nobody could compete with this juggernaut.
Then along came two small startups: Netflix and Redbox. Netflix comes along and says “we’re going to stream movies over the internet. That’s the future and the way everyone will want to consume movies and TV in the future. But since the internet is too slow right now, we’ll just start by mailing DVDs to people.”
Blockbuster looked at this and said, “the internet is way too slow to stream movies. That’s ridiculous! Who wants to wait two weeks to get a movie in the mail?! Hahaha! Stupid startup, they’re wasting their money and energy.” In hindsight this seems ridiculous. At the time, most people would have agreed with Blockbuster.
As you know, people started changing the way they rented movies. Once they tried it, they were happy to pay a subscription and use a queue to get DVDs delivered in the mail. Ultimately, making the decision of what to watch ahead of time was better than wandering through a cathedral of DVDs only to find the one you wanted to watch has already been checked out.
Consumer internet bandwidth speeds quickly caught up. Netflix even invented some of the technologies that provide high quality streaming video to your home. Now, most of us can’t imagine having to go to the store to rent a physical copy of a movie. And those that can, get them from a Redbox kiosk that has a limited selection, but is much quicker and easier than a video store. Netflix now has a larger market share than Blockbuster ever did, with zero physical locations.
There are exactly nine Blockbuster stores still operating, mostly in Alaska. From 9,000 down to nine in only a few years! This is what failing to innovate does. This is how comfort and confidence in market share and sales blinds people and organizations to the coming innovations that will disrupt their market.
Literacy, Disruption, and Gutenberg
Disruptive innovation doesn’t apply just in business. I have a Bachelor’s degree in history. So one example I love to use is how literacy and education ultimately toppled monarchies and traditional power structures in favor of republics and representative democracy.
The choice of Gutenberg as the name of the new WordPress editor seems prescient in this example as well. The name was one of the clues that led me to answer the ‘why?’ question. It was Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type printing press that was the innovative disruption that changed everything!
Before that, the vast majority of people in Europe were illiterate and uneducated. The scarcity of books and written material made it impractical and prohibitively expensive for most people to learn to read. It also allowed the Church and aristocracy to control the opportunity to become literate. That meant the rich and powerful were the gatekeepers of knowledge. Most riots and uprisings to this point were about hunger.
The Gutenberg press changed all that. Suddenly books could be mass-produced faster, cheaper, better than they ever could before. Literacy caught on like a wildfire. The power structures thought they could control it and maintain the status quo. They outlawed printing without state approval and did many other things to limit the spread of ideas through printed materials.
But it was too late, the power to spread ideas that the printing press provided was much too viral. Many printing presses were operated illegally, then destroyed when they were discovered by authorities.
The tipping point had been reached though. The ability to read and spread ideas via printed documents was much more powerful than the money, soldiers, and weapons of the monarchy. Though hunger might have sparked riots and uprisings from this time on, those tiny flames were fanned into an inferno of revolution by ideas spread through printed words. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is a great example if you want to learn more about concrete examples.
The Pain of Disrupting Yourself
I don’t have a business degree, but from my understanding, The Innovator’s Dilemma can be simplified down to this: to survive, and stay on top, a company (or software, or community) must innovate. It can not be incremental innovation. It must be innovation that disrupts the company’s core product or business model, even to the point of entirely replacing it.
Blockbuster tried some Redbox-like and Netflix-like solutions, but they were too little, too late. The only way they could have survived would have been to disrupt their own business model and service. They would have had to say, “in five years we will close all 9k stores and completely shift our business to providing video online.”
Who does that? Who thinks “we have built an empire, but we have to completely change it and replace it all over again”? That’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” that the book’s title refers to: it’s incredibly difficult to think in those terms when you’re on the top. It’s nearly impossible to say, “we have to disrupt ourselves. We must compete with our own business and products and services.” But ultimately it’s the only way to survive.
…Or you can buy an innovative company and let them disrupt your main business. Did you know Blockbuster had the chance to buy Netflix for $50 million in 2000? It was pocket change, but they passed because it was a very small, niche business.
Had they bought Netflix and allowed it to continue innovating and disrupting their core retail rental model, Blockbuster might still be around. It wouldn’t have 9k retail stores, but it would have an even larger market share than it ever did renting DVDs.
In either case, the process is painful. That’s why it’s called disruptive. Not because it’s a walk on the beach or small speed bump, but because it takes a lot of work and forward-thinking and causes a lot of pain to create and implement.
If you are the market leader, you can’t rest on your previous success. You have to change everything once again, like you did to get to where you are now. Despite the pain of doing it, you have to invest yourself and your resources into hard work and difficult questions and challenging thinking that goes directly counter to our natural tendency as humans. If you want to stay on top, it’s the only way.
WordPress is Ripe for Disruption
WordPress has a 30% market share right now. It won’t be long before 1 out of every 3 websites is built on WordPress. No other platform is even close.
As WordPress professionals and community members, it seems like we have all the momentum and benefits of being the leader. “Surely nothing could displace WordPress!” That’s what Blockbuster said. That’s what monarchs of past ages said. The truth is simple: “yes, something could. In fact, something will, if WordPress doesn’t innovatively disrupt itself.”
Is it going to be painful? Yes. Is it going to cause a lot of work and effort on the part of the community? Yes! Absolutely. But the alternative is to learn a totally new platform in five years when WordPress dies like Blockbuster did. You think this change is going to be difficult? Try throwing out WordPress entirely and moving your website(s) to an entirely new platform. Because that’s the alternative.
Good Arguments Against Gutenberg
I see many people listing a string of bugs in the Gutenberg UI/UX and concluding that Gutenberg shouldn’t exist. I see others critiquing the underlying technologies and claiming that’s evidence that Gutenberg is entirely wrong.
I’m sorry, but those arguments are entirely invalid. They may be great arguments for how Gutenberg needs to change or improve, but they are not valid arguments against the existence of Gutenberg and its inclusion in core.
Hopefully, I’ve made it clear that WordPress is in dire need of innovation. If that’s true, then as I see it, there’s only one really great argument against Gutenberg. As one person in one of the meetups I presented at put it: “is it the right innovation?”
That’s the crux of the whole thing: WordPress must innovate to survive. Matt Mullenweg and the entire Gutenberg team have looked at the past and the future and decided that a better, faster, easier user interface and experience, are the disruptive innovations that WordPress needs to survive.
You can argue that it’s not, that there’s some other innovation that will completely change WordPress and thereby save it from disruption by outside forces. And that’s a totally valid argument to make. But in my opinion, you can’t argue that continued, incremental changes are enough. You can’t argue that the path we’ve been on the last five years is going to keep WordPress on top for the next five years. It simply won’t.
I Like Gutenberg, but I Love What it’s Doing
In my experience thus far, I like Gutenberg. I believe it is the right disruptive innovation WordPress needs at this time. It will make WordPress easier to use and help its underpinnings be ready for the future. Being easy to use is what got WordPress where it is today.
It’s not very easy to use any more. There are significantly easier options out there, that could disrupt WordPress and replace it. I think Gutenberg will allow WordPress to disrupt itself and keep ahead of other disruptive innovations. It will save WordPress and allow us all to keep using it and building our businesses on it for another 10 years into the future.
I like Gutenberg, but I really love what Gutenberg means, what it represents, and what it’s doing. Gutenberg is bigger than just a new post editor, it shows that the leaders of the WordPress community are willing to make hard decisions and innovate even when it means disrupting their own work and previous innovations.
I have huge respect for the Gutenberg team, who have not only had to rethink everything and do all those difficult things I referred to before, but have had to do it all very publicly, while navigating a gauntlet of criticism, personal attacks, and much more.
I hope this post shows my thanks and newfound appreciation for what they’re doing and going through. Flipping the phrase from The Dark Knight, the members of the Gutenberg team are “the heroes the WordPress community needs right now, even if they’re not the ones we deserve.”