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What If WordPress Wasn’t Free? 5 Ideas For A Self-Sustaining Future

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Comments (5)

Comment by Simon says:

Just a thought : using plugin repository as a “App Store”, charging each plugin maybe just a buck to download or use (a test period would be wonderful), having some cents taken from the transaction for repository charges, and doing so, give money back to the whole ecosystem without charging wordpress core in itself.

Again, just a thought. I love WordPress being open and free and such a nice product. Sometimes, I also see that plugins dev are very important to users for using WordPress.

But maybe throwing money into something working that good already is a bad idea.

Comment by Jonathan Wold says:

Andrew – Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective and address the concerns. You’ve helped to clarify several questions for me and given me a stronger sense of the broad base of interests that care about the future of WordPress.

As a follow-up, do you have a perspective to offer on how WordPress can continue to lead and direct it’s development future *considering* the wide base of interests?

While, at the root, we can hope that a love for WordPress (it certainly holds a warm place in my heart) and a sincere interest for the community’s well being continues to guide the contribution process, what happens if those interests become misdirected?

What if, for example, a new industry, small yet highly influential, begins to rely heavily on WordPress, gets actively involved in the development process, and begins to “guide” development, actively or passively, in a direction out of line with the “core values”?

Who protects the core values? Who’s ultimately responsible, at the end of the day, for determining the vision for WordPress and ensuring that contributions, as well meaning as intended, are in align with that vision?

Comment by Andrew Nacin says:

Like Mark Jaquith, I’m not an employee of Automattic. Same goes for Jon Cave, one of the other core developers. And, here’s a list of (in my opinion) our top five contributing developers in terms of how active they are, and how important they are to the well being of the project: Helen Hou-Sandi, Aaron Campbell, Cristi Burca, Sergey Biryukov, Dominik Schilling. None of them work for Automattic. If you asked me to expand that list another five names, I’m not sure you’d see another Automattician. That’s not a strike against Automattic. They have an incredible team of developers, many of whom do contribute to core. Some of them serve on the security team, which is a crack team of some of the most incredible (and cunning) WordPress talent out there. Some of them are people I go to when *I* need help, because of their deep knowledge and history.

My point that the people steering WordPress development is far more diversified than meets the eye. (That also means quite a few individuals who hold the copyright to WordPress.) Recently, companies with a vested interest in WordPress succeeding — in particular, major U.S. hosting companies — have started to contribute not just money, but time to WordPress. Three hosts have a combined (by my count) five developers dedicated to contributing to and supporting WordPress full time. That is huge. When you think about who contributes to Linux — unless you are closely familiar with how the kernel is maintained — you think IBM, Google, etc. You’re starting to see a lot of companies donate good chunks of direct time to WordPress core development — Dreamhost, GoDaddy, Bluehost, 10up, Range, AppThemes, Crowd Favorite, and others.

Just some background that may inform future ideas: The WordPress Foundation — which pretty much just holds the trademark and works with WordCamps — does no formal fundraising. It is operating as a 501(c)3 U.S. nonprofit to further education. It is not a membership organization (like the Drupal Association or the jQuery Foundation) and thus collects no dues, or corporate sponsorship. It has no endowment. If the foundation wished to expand and do more to support the community, there are many opportunities in the non-profit space that have been unexplored.

Anyone who knows Matt personally knows how incredibly committed he is to free and open source software, WordPress, and democratizing publishing. It is an unwavering, deeply personal commitment for which I have the utmost respect. If, for example, Automattic’s board tried to pull a fast one (no, I’m not suggesting they would — they’re good people over there), they don’t influence WordPress.org and WordPress quite the way you’d think. The Foundation controls the trademarks. WordPress.org is powered by its own independent grid of servers. And every single member of the core team who works at Automattic first contributed to core and were promoted to core and lead developer roles before starting their tenure at Automattic. (It would be easy to guess where their likely allegiances lie if, down the road, Automattic no longer acted in good faith.) Of course, you must also take into account how the community benefits Automattic, which it does in a number of important ways, like maintaining, testing, using, and supporting the core software; being a talent pool for Automattic; driving up adoption which in turn provides Automattic with more customers (both for their basic products/services, and VIP), and then some.

I think you ask valid questions and present valid concerns. (I hope it is apparent I am trying to address, not dismiss, them.) Some closing thoughts:There are ways to ensure WordPress will continue to succeed without charging for products or services. It’s not about selling things. WordPress will always be free. The WordPress community is awesome, and it’s that loyal community that makes it self-sustaining.

Comment by Jonathan Wold says:

Sam, thank you for your thoughts! I feel the same way. If it hadn’t been free I probably wouldn’t have begun using it. Now that it has become such an integral part of my development process I really want to do what I can to ensure a successful future.

Comment by Sam Sinton says:

Had WordPress not been free initially I may have never taken my first steps into website development, but now I am hooked it is doubtful that there is an amount I would not pay to continue using what is in my opinion the best CMS available.

Automatic has its fingers in many more pies that are WordPress related (Vaultpress for instance) – these addons is where I see them making their big bucks. Although I dont exactly count $45 million last year as small change.

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