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The last time I wrote about Gutenberg, I told you I was confused. I don’t think I’m confused anymore, but I am clear that I don’t speak in any official capacity for WordPress, Automattic or anyone involved in the development of Gutenberg.

So take these thoughts for what they are – my own personal take on what is happening in the WordPress world right now….

Let me tell you a story…

In 2000 I joined a company called QuantumShift. It was a telco startup that purchased one of my startups (ICE Wireless). At the time the company had 50 enterprise clients. They also had raised $50 Million in funding. I remember joking (before the acquisition) that if their cost of sale was $1 million per customer, they were going to have issues.

After joining, I became aware of many of their internal issues and worked with a team to help them build an advanced version of their offering, at a much lower price point for supporting the product.

We called this, not imaginatively, changing the airplane’s engine mid-flight.

We felt the pressure to keep the existing platform working, while also building a new product that would be cheaper to operate with greater automation and more extensibility for new kinds of partnerships.

Two objectives:

  • Don’t break anything – which means you keep everything the same
  • Build something completely new – which means you change everything

They often felt like dynamics in constant conflict.

That was the first time I had that as my core agenda in building a new software product. But it wasn’t my last. I’ve embarked on that kind of project three times in my career. Each time, the risks have been high but worth the potential payoff. And all three times, we’ve been able to get it done.

If I were talking about Gutenberg, I wouldn’t talk about it as a new editor, at all

Now, to reinforce my earlier caveat. These opinions (like everything on this site) are my own. They don’t represent anyone else. And they’ve not been sanctioned by anyone else.

When I hear people talking about Gutenberg, I hear them not only talking about blocks, but talking about blocks in the context of the editor and the content editing paradigm.

I get it, because that’s what’s been demonstrated.

But when I listen to Matt talk about Gutenberg, or those working on the project, I hear things like, “Everything will be a block.” And if that’s the case, I would clearly stop talking about this as a content editing change.

I would call this a mid-flight engine change.

Competing in the future

When you think about the competition that we’re already seeing from other CMS solutions, and when you talk to developers who use more than just WordPress for their work with clients, you often hear the frustrations of working with WordPress. They’re bothered by the database. Or they’re frustrated with a lack of an API (which now exists!).

And if we are to compete well in the future, we have to make changes to WordPress. But not all changes are easy. And not all changes are incremental.

What do you do when you need to rethink the architecture on a large scale?

I’ll tell you what you don’t do:

  • You don’t declare that you need to rewrite all of WordPress
  • You don’t declare that you’re going to fork WordPress
  • You don’t declare that WordPress is only good for certain things (like blogging)

You don’t do these things because more than anything, they cause people to run for the doors. The exit doors.

But that doesn’t mean you do nothing. You can’t afford to do nothing because the result will be the same – people running for the doors.

What you do is start to think about a completely new architecture that can solve both short and long-term problems. An architecture like blocks that can be re-used and re-purposed all across the platform.

It’s why you’d say something like, “Everything will be a block.” Because it will. And because that will be the layer of abstraction that could allow you to change both what’s above it (UI and UX) and below it (database structures, etc).

What is the future in web publishing?

The future of web publishing, in my opinion, isn’t page building. The future can’t continue to be a unidirectional dynamic where someone in marketing determines the best articulation of their message in a single-focused and static design. 

When you think about page building, you think about the site owner creating a beautiful page that they hope others will like viewing. Sure there are “blocks” – columns, rows, content in each, and you can move them around – but those blocks are containers of content that are relatively static and don’t actually change based on the visitor or the number of times they visit.

The page builders of today – with Beaver Builder being my all time favorite – solve this problem already. If we’re rearchitecting an entire solution for WordPress just to solve a problem they’ve already solved, we’re being dumb.

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening.

The future of publishing is that different people can get different content depending on their behavior, demographics, interest and more.

And if that’s the case, you can’t shove content into a static container like a post or a page. You have to put that content in a dynamic container that can appear anywhere.

And your engine no longer is about rendering pages or posts. Instead, it is focused on pulling together the right “blocks” for you.

In the future, people won’t create pages. They’ll create various kinds of content and allow an engine to dynamically display different views of that content at different points along the journey.

A simple example of the future Gutenberg

Imagine I’m visiting a software company’s website like VMWare. They sell corporate / enterprise products. But they also sell consumer products (Fusion for Mac).

Instead of creating page layouts for their home page, they create building blocks. Small components of content that represent different content for different audiences. They create:

  • general news
  • desktop product news
  • security news
  • cloud news

Each of those news clusters can hold either the top converting news items, or the most recent.

Should they show all of them? Nope. Only the one that is most related to my interests – which they monitor in my first visit. If I head straight to the Fusion for Mac page, they may show me desktop product news on my next visit to the home page.

They can do the same with ads, case studies, product announcements and more.

They no longer use a page builder to create a home page, or a product page, or a landing page. Instead they simply create blocks (of content, video, ads, etc) and then create a way to arrange and present them to me.

Here’s the thing about replatforms…

When you do a mid-flight engine change, you sometime call it something else. In the software engineering world where I’ve spent my time, we call it a re-platform. It’s often an attempt to revitalize a product by changing the insides (infrastructure) and making a product more nimble.

The thing about replatforms is that everyone knows they’re risky. And because of that, everyone is involved in the risk mitigation efforts – from communication to preparation, from development to testing.

I don’t know if Gutenberg really is a replatform, but it feels like that to me. And potentially a really powerful and useful one. One that would allow it to compete very effectively against others in the future.

But to do that, it needs the whole community to be on board with what we’re really doing and why we’re really doing it. And in that dynamic is where I see the only misstep.

If it were me, I’d stop talking about Gutenberg as a change to the editor and start talking about it as a change to the architecture.

But that’s just me. I could still be confused….