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WordPress development trends (1/3) – an overview after WordCamp Europe Vienna 2016

When you look at the map, Vienna seems like a logical choice for WordCamp Europe 2016. It firmly sits at the European center of gravity, symbolically connecting east with west and fusing romanesque / baroque architecture with (modern) smart city design. As we will see later, these “old VS new” concepts were inevitable talking points during this year’s happening.

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MuseumsQuartier, a venue where WordCamp took place, also lived up to its name. Three large halls gathered 3000 people from all around the world, making this WordCamp the largest WordPress gathering in history.

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Lecture topics were roughly broken down into three tracks – development, design and business – which, to be honest, is a typical structure for conferences dealing with online products and services. But, if you look at the schedule and attendance, some of the topics gained more traction than others and seemed like they will “stick” for several years to come. Although you could argue on the exact list, I think that these themes sum up the future heading of WordPress evolution:

  • The direction of WordPress life-cycle – features VS stability VS compatibility
  • WordPress-as-a-platform (REST API)
  • Client-side (JavaScript) future of WP interactivity

1. Direction of WordPress life-cycle – features VS stability VS compatibility

For years, WordPress had a stigma of being a blogging engine. The whole community worked hard, wrote articles and gave lectures on why this stigma is not true and to this date, when we talk with potential clients and project managers about it, WP doesn’t seem to have this problem anymore (and most of our peers look at WP as a CMS platform). The job is done, right? Wrong…

A couple of talks on WordCamp gave a clear emphasis on why we need to pursue even bigger WordPress implementation on larger scales and on larger projects. The reason is this: If we have a good platform that (obviously) 25% of the internet is using, why don’t we give the same publishing power to large portals and big eCommerce platforms? All of the benefits of using WordPress should be equally accessible to both types of clients, large and small. This topic takes back-end, front-end, design, accessibility and content challenges into account… and two of the lectures were specifically geared towards “big” projects – Morten from Lynda.Com and Dion+Juan from NewsCorp:

Dion Beetson and Juan Zapata from NewsCorp Australia presented challenges they have had when implementing WP on a system that needs to serve 10 million pageviews per day (we wrote on a similar topic from WooConf 2016 where Chris Lema described Woocommerce platform that handles 3000 Add to cart actions per minute) Hint: they use around 58 VMs on staging environment 🙂

On the other hand, Morten Rand-Hendriksen from Lynda.Com gave an interesting talk from a designer’s perspective, but with the same goal. His point was that we need to leverage the power of empathy and acceptance when building digital projects. The ones that will empower all types of users and all types of interactivities. He presented clear steps that you need to take when architecting professional WP implementations and you can watch them in full length on WordPress.Tv here:

Protip: Rian Rietveld gave a talk on the state of WordPress accessibility, a great continuation of Marten’s talk.

Seven more talks referenced to big scale problems and they presented real technical examples of how to avoid amateur development and production pitfalls:

  • Dan Blows presented that your WP can push 2x times better load times by utilizing PHP 7
  • A proper dev environment is crucial if you want to deploy large-scale projects. Matt Geri explained what are the “wise” ways of setting it up on your local machine (using VirtualBox, VVV, Git, WP-CLI, PHPStorm, Xdebug, Travis (CI) and WP Pusher) note that Matt checks his code with PHPCS and WPCS for coding standards and automated checking procedures
  • Front-end optimization always seems like something that is produced at the end of the product-building phase, but Peter Wilson elaborates it really well, saying this shouldn’t be the case. Talk includes javascript placement optimization, load times analysis and content loading practices. Peter also answers the main question of his presentation: What will get his visitors interacting fast and in quickest way
  • Talks about ElasticSearch emphasized the importance of architecting the right search engine for large WP implementations. As we all know, the current database in WordPress is not optimized for really complex queries and joins, something that Dion and Juan from NewsCorp also pointed out in their presentation (specifically, they store all of the post meta into the post content field, using post meta ONLY for storing tags and other “searchable” elements). ElasticSearch can help with these problems as you then have a separate system that takes care of caching and indexing your WP database, making searches blazing fast. Taylor Lovett explains it in his talk with more details: “Modernizing WordPress Search with Elasticsearch”
  • Anna Ladoshkina talked further about the need for better WP workflows using Composer in PHP. This presentation was more connected to PHP development than WordPress workflow itself, but it gave a clear way of why you need to push yourself in developing plugins and themes the “proper” way. Dependency managers are a normal thing for all platforms and IDEs – Gradle in Android Studio, CocoaPods in Apple Xcode and NuGet for Visual Studio to name a few. WordPress development should not be an exception.
  • Developers often don’t think about journalists and editors, the same users who will have great challenges using the tools that developers have produced. Eric Lewis from New York Times explained how NYT tackles the problem of publishing content across multiple devices, platforms and CMS systems with the WordPress platform in mind. Also, he talked about various approaches to building WYSIWYG editors and modules in large-scale systems.
  • If you’re dealing with legacy systems and old code (something that is inevitable in every large system, especially WordPress) you will come to a point where you want to modernize the whole platform – back-end, front-end, APIs … you name it! Andrew Nacin gave a talk on how to properly do that with loads of hints and tips. By the way, Andy is a lead WP developer and works on government-built systems… you should really check out his talk seeing it’s packed with field experience.

WordCamp would not be WordCamp without some great talks about Open Source project management, team production and remote work. Although there were specific talks regarding remote work (like Mario Peshev’s lecture), I will mention one special talk that sprung heavy interest – a talk from Drupal (yes, you heard it right) multilingual lead developer Gábor Hojtsy who worked together with 1300 people across 5 years (and probably 5 continents :)) to introduce several big improvements on Drupal’s multilanguage functionality. Gábor’s comments and experience will be a good anchor point for all complex undertakings in future WP developments.

I will close this section with one of the earliest talks, a talk that practically opened the conference and has a clear connection to the point of this article… moving WordPress into more professional and big scale projects by John Blackbourn. John is a core WP developer with 9 years of experience and he talked about the current “stable” state and the “wants” of some people that need to move WP into more modern directions.

His lecture featured some main items on what WordPress core is already using to accommodate ever-changing online landscape:

  • Integration of Responsive images via SRCSET
  • REST API (basically the largest API distribution on the web)
  • Native HTTPS support
  • Native HTTP/2 support
  • WordPress core now conforms with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG on AA level
  • But, WP core code needs to be backward compatible (min. PHP 5.2) to accommodate 7% of global sites

Having heard these two talks from Gábor and John, future challenges for WordPress truly are few, but profound. You would think that including the flashy libraries and cutting-edge technologies are the trouble here, but this is not the case. Like mentioned in John’s talk, clear leadership of the project and balancing features over stability will be the two major future themes for the whole community.

I would say that the short-term direction is pretty clear and that WP is going into a more serious and professional web business, being a solution/platform for complex projects. We are seeing it for instance in Croatia as there are more and more agencies that label themselves as “WordPress providers”

Long Term issues will be the battles of features/compatibility/stability. These topics are hard to steer with the complex community approach. John Blackbourn is probably right that WordPress will need some heavier proactive helm to navigate the ship towards the old or maybe some new directions.

Do you agree with this? Maybe some other topics will jump out in this ever-changing community! Give us your thoughts and questions in the comments below (and stay tuned for future parts of this series as we will dig deeper into REST API and JavaScript future of the WordPress platform).

Krešimir Končić
Krešimir Končić Owner at Neuralab

Ex QBASIC developer that ventured into a web world in 2007. Leading a team of like-minded Open Source aficionados that love design, code and a pinch of BBQ. Currently writing a book that explains why ‘coding is the easier part’ of our field.

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