I have been working with WordPress for over 6 years now. I make a full-time living through web development work, of which the majority is directly related to WordPress. I like WordPress – a lot. I have benefited greatly from the thousands of hours that have gone into WordPress development and the vast ecosystem of developers and designers who’ve made WordPress what it is today.
I like to ask questions. And I like to find answers. I like the way Clayton Christensen put it: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go.”
As a web developer and a software developer, I’ve wrestled with the question of “free”. “Should we charge for our software? Should we just give it away and charge for support? Should we only charge for add-ons?”
What follows are my observations, ideas, and suggestions. I am far from an official voice. I care about WordPress and it’s future. I am also interested in understanding it more. Why has it been so successful? What does its future hold?
WordPress is openly and boldly free. They (who is they?) have no public plans to charge for it and, from what I can tell there is little pressure to do so. The current lead development team, with the exception of Mark Jaquith, are employees of Automattic – a company that is doing well financially.
The Problem With Free (as in Price)
The bottom line is that someone has to pay for the work that goes into WordPress. At the moment, Automattic is footing the salaries for most of the lead development team and a strong handful of the contributors. While I have nothing but positive things to say about the team and the work they’re doing, the question I have is, “What if that changed?” Automattic is a busy company. What if it isn’t in their best interest to continue supporting WordPress.org?
The other problem with free is that motive matters. Why is it free? Why are folks willing to contribute their time and effort without direct compensation? There are certainly folks who volunteer their time and talents just because they love WordPress. More often than not, though, those folks derive their livelihood directly, or indirectly, from the WordPress ecosystem.
While the motive at the top may be good, what about it’s future? I suggest that there are problems with a project the size, scale, and influence of WordPress being entirely free.
A Note On Ideas
Before I share a few ideas, I want to start by clarifying an important point. Not all ideas are good. Some (or even all) of the ideas I share may be downright bad. The important step is to ask the question. When an idea experiences the light of day it will either die quickly or grow. I am not attached to these ideas. I’m here to put them out in the open.
Ideas For Self-Sustaining WordPress
- Charge For Automatic Updates – In a bold move, WordPress could adopt a pricing strategy similar to Akismet and charge for access to its update API. It would continue to remain free for personal/non-profit use. Developers, or web hosts, would either pay the costs themselves or pass it on to their customers.
- Offer Paid Membership to WordPress.org – A paid membership could go a long ways in prioritizing further development of WordPress.org and funding full-time support staff, in addition to the volunteers. Paid access could include priority support through the forums and other supporter-only features.
- Facilitate Commercial Plugins - The repository could be revamped to become a marketplace for both free and commercial plugins, facilitating the discovery and transaction of plugins in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.
- Charge Plugin Developers – As of this writing, there are over 22,000 plugins in the WordPress repository. Over 8,000 of those plugins haven’t been updated in the past two years. Managing the repository is a lot of work and without a direct incentive (usually monetary) for doing so, how will the work get done? Charging plugin developers for access to the repository could help offset the management costs and fund improvements.
- Facilitate Commercial Themes - The commercial marketplace for WordPress themes has exploded in recent years and, if I were to take a guess, I would suggest that most folks are getting their themes from outside WordPress.org. Instead of just listing commercial providers, WordPress.org could throw its own hat in the ring and begin to facilitate the sale and support of commercial WordPress themes directly within its own ecosystem.
Those are some of my ideas. I know that for years now I have simply assumed that WordPress would always be there. Answers to these ideas, either for or against them, will, at the very least, help a few of us have a clearer understanding of future of WordPress.
What do you think? If you think an idea is good, tell me why. If you think an idea is bad, do the same.