May 27, 2023 marks a major milestone in the history of digital publishing: 20 years since the first official public release of WordPress Core. Born from a simple need to publish writing and photos on the web quickly, it’s no surprise WordPress grew around this core capability as a blogging platform to become the world’s leading content management system (CMS). Today WordPress powers over 43% of the web and over 63% of all websites that use an identifiable CMS.
WordPress is not just software, however. WordPress is an open-source community that continues to strive for innovation, inclusivity, and the democratization of publishing. It’s a global ecosystem of products and services that anyone can join by creating with WordPress. From freelancers and small businesses to agencies and large enterprises, WordPress is the way we make our living.
Who would have predicted this outcome? It wasn’t inevitable. But looking back over the first ten years of WordPress’s existence, several moments suggest what some key ingredients were for its surprising success. Let’s take a look! In another post, we’ll catch up to the present day.
Lessons from WordPress History
Among its peers, WordPress was a relative latecomer to the CMS market without commercial backing. What explains its incredible growth — to more than half the CMS market — in just the first decade of its existence? Here are key moments from that era — and some lesser-known details about them — that offer insight into WordPress’s success.
A Winning Team Anyone Can Join
Thanks to open-source licensing, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little were free to fork b2/cafelog, a blogging application whose codebase dates back to 2001. By late 2002, b2’s developer had abandoned his code, and Mike responded in a comment on Matt’s blog post proposing a fork.
Since b2 was licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), WordPress automatically was too. Anyone can use, examine, modify, and redistribute GPL and other open-source licensed code. Thanks to the GPL, WordPress comes with a bill of rights declaring the four freedoms that have continually fueled its adoption and evolution.
When the popular MovableType platform made its non-open-source license more restrictive, many users switched to WordPress, like core contributor Mark Jaquith. Expression Engine was another popular early entry to the CMS market ahead of WordPress, which was considered “just for blogs.” Expression Engine didn’t hold up as a proprietary project and eventually adopted open-source licensing to survive. Its founder conceded “open source has won.” You can’t beat open source, but the good news is you can join it.
A Blank Canvas Attracts Creativity
Plugins and themes were introduced in WordPress 1.2 and 1.5. They made WordPress highly extensible and would become the primary source of WordPress’s growth A diverse ecosystem of community and commercially supported GPL software grew up around WordPress in third-party add-on products, mainly plugins and themes.
The first and longest-serving default theme was part of the WordPress 1.5 package. Named “Kubrick,” this classic blogging theme was the work of core contributor Michael Heilemann who went on to lead design at Squarespace after 2010. Something about Kubrick’s simple, clean design made it stick and even spread to other platforms. In 2021, Gutenberg lead Matías Ventura released a Kubrick block theme, so you can still enjoy Kubrick today.
Themes, more so than plugins, were originally the main scene for innovation in WordPress because they attracted designers. With the web only ten years old and lacking uniform standards that all browsers followed, most web designers were self-taught and busy hacking their way into careers or founding agencies in an emerging field. WordPress, with its completely hackable front end, was perfect for them.
Make Interfaces Invisible
WordPress evolved beyond its b2 origins, so other software projects influenced its interface design. Textpattern and its founder, Dean Allen, significantly influenced key WordPress features and its interface. That changed after WordPress 2.5 when WordPress began to come into its own and stand as a model for others. The 2.5 release was the first research and testing-based redesign of the WordPress admin.
The 2.5 redesign was overseen by none other than the king of standards-based web design, Jeffrey Zeldman, along with his team at Happy Cog — Jason Santa Maria and Liz Danzico. Today Danzico is Vice President of Design at Microsoft, and Santa Maria directs product design and research at Netlify. Since 2019, Zeldman has been the Principal Designer and Creative Director at Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com.
At WordCamp San Francisco 2007, Danzico explained the reasoning behind Happy Cog’s information architecture and usability work for the WordPress 2.5 release. Her presentation, “How Not to Get Noticed,” is still fresh and relevant. Zeldman’s notes on the project express the same goal of decreasing friction and making the interface less noticeable. Years earlier, Zeldman blogged that what initially drew him to WordPress is how it “thinks like a designer” — and also a writer. It works with you and doesn’t get in the way of what you’re trying to do.
Unfortunately, that is not the effect or experience WordPress 2.5 had for many people.
Kill Your Darlings
There is an old saying that great writing involves “killing your darlings” — you’ve got to make hard cuts and painful revisions. This is why most writers need an editor to do the dirty work of cutting their writing down to the essentials.
Software coding and design work are no different. Creative work, especially when aiming to please many people, always tends toward bloat and cruft. A large part of WordPress’s early success might be due to the intense cuts and revisions it went through.
Despite all the work and expertise that went into WordPress 2.5, it didn’t work out as intended and was not widely embraced. It broke new ground but led to even more change in the 2.7 release a few months later. However, the underlying information architecture — especially the Dashboard — has endured. While it looks very different from 2.5 at first glance, WordPress 2.7’s admin interface improved on the architecture 2.5 brought in, and it took core development deeper into testing and research-based design.
Let Women Lead
The big design changes in WordPress 2.7 were led by Jane Wells (known later as Jen and now Jinx Mylo), who directed an intensive usability study and was WordPress core’s UX/Design lead for several years. Jeff Chandler noted at WP Tavern in 2016 how successful that release was, with design work done mainly by Matt Thomas and Andy Peatling.
“[T]hat was one of the beginnings to Jen’s contributions and her huge impact on the WordPress world,” Matt Mullenweg told Jeff at WordCamp US 2016.
In Matt’s view, “[Jen] brought an entirely different way of thinking with a user-first, usability, research-led mindset. It was fantastic to have female leadership demonstrating very early on in the WordPress community that this is software made by everyone for everyone.”
As WordPress gears up for its second all-women and nonbinary release squad, it’s possible to see the transformative 2.7 release as the first big step in this direction.
The overall 2.7 interface style stuck for a long time — all the way to the WordPress 3.8 release in 2013. The Dashboard admin menu moved to a sidebar in 2.9, where it has stayed since then. WordPress 3.1 saw the addition of the Admin bar. Both became widely imitated and standard models for interface design. WordPress 2.7 to 3.8 probably remain the most recognizable, iconic iterations of WordPress. They also coincided with massive growth for the platform. With these releases, WordPress ended the decade with completeness in its design and functionality, indicating a mature product created by an incredible team and supported by a cohesive community.
Maturity is Stability Amid Change
In the 2.7 to 2.9 releases, WordPress acquired game-changing features to accompany its design innovations. These were automatic and remote upgrades, the ability to install plugins over the web from inside WordPress, and batch plugin updates. Eventually, themes would follow. These features brought the WordPress ecosystem inside every WordPress dashboard and made site maintenance manageable at any scale. Especially for agencies, freelancers, and their clients, these were (and still are) enormous selling points. The time to build a new site and the costs of owning (and maintaining) one fell long thanks to the new internal update facility. This made WordPress a clear choice over alternatives for anyone buying or selling development and maintenance services.
In the 3.0 release, WordPress MU’s multisite capabilities merged with WordPress core, and we got custom post types, navigation menus, and the first of an annual series of default themes. All of this made it clear WordPress had arrived — as a full-fledged CMS. The next major milestones that would propel WordPress forward as a general-purpose web application framework wouldn’t arrive for five years or more — the REST API (2015) and the introduction of Gutenberg in WordPress 5.0 (2018).
What WordPress’s First Ten Years Tell Us
From humble beginnings as a small, forked open-source project with a passionate community of contributors, WordPress grew into the dominant CMS platform by embracing community collaboration, inclusion, and continually innovating. Understanding users’ evolving needs, maintaining a drive for simplicity, and the courage to cut features or “kill darlings” led to a remarkably complete but relatively lean product. As WordPress continues to evolve, paying attention to its history can offer some guidance on what works and what doesn’t — and how to remain resilient and adaptive amid change.
This is the first in a series celebrating the first two decades of WordPress. Want to get notified when we publish part two? Follow us on your preferred social network to get it, along with weekly security news and much more. Here’s to another 20 years and more where everyone, everywhere can share their story or business online with ease and creativity thanks to WordPress and open-source software!
Dan Knauss is StellarWP’s Technical Content Generalist. He’s been a writer, teacher, and freelancer working in open source since the late 1990s and with WordPress since 2004.
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