As long-term users know, WordPress is a constantly evolving platform. Since the first release back in 2003, it’s moved through a further 25 versions with slightly more than half of them coming since 2010 alone. The pace of change is clearly picking up.
If you’re basing your business on WordPress – as a designer, theme/plugin developer or site owner – it obviously pays to keep up to speed with where it’s heading. In this article, we’ll cover how new features make it into a release, look at the contrasting fortunes of two recent core candidates and take a quick tour of three forthcoming features and the reasons you need to pay attention to them.
Take note: the last of our selections represents one of the biggest shifts in the platform’s history. Be sure to read to the end! Let’s start with a look at the core selection process.
How the Core Selection Process Works
After over a decade of continuous development, WordPress is now one of the world’s largest and best run open source projects. During that time, the platform has evolved to such an extent in terms of usability and ease of updates that casual users may well be unaware of just how much work is constantly taking place to keep the show on the road.
Make WordPress is an excellent jumping off point for starting to explore behind the scenes. A quick glance at the homepage shows you all the major aspects of the platform that are regularly being worked on. Depending on your background, certain sections such as Design, Mobile or Accessibility may naturally be of more interest than others. The one that concerns us here is Core.
On the core homepage – along with the latest blog entries describing the progress of individual features – you’ll see a handy overview of the currently planned release including key details such as its provisional release date. As you can see, at the time of writing the currently planned release is WordPress 4.3 with a target release date of August the 18th.
At this stage, WordPress has a pretty tightly nailed down release schedule that aims for a new version every three to four months. The process works roughly as follows:
New features have their own special place in this overall process. Ever since WordPress 3.7, they are officially promoted to Feature Plugins as part of the final development process covering the move into core.
You can see a full list of current and previously planned features under this model at the Feature Plugins Tracking page.
The idea behind the Features Plugin approach is that they can be developed, tested and refined in a separate state prior to becoming merge candidates and being eventually integrated. It’s a sensible, transparent separation of concerns that keeps everyone on the same page throughout the process.
The various links above should help keep you in the loop on current and future features but you may also want to explore some of the following areas for more detail:
Weekly Developer Meetings:
These take place via Slack
so you can simply follow the progress of individual features. Full meeting agendas
are also posted.
WordPress Core Handbook:
If you’re looking to explore the world of WordPress core in more detail, full documentation
is available online for your reading pleasure.
Let’s have a quick look at the contrasting fortunes of two recent core candidates before we move on to our three picks.
Front-end Editor and the Customizer Theme Switcher
If there’s one aspect of WordPress that has attracted a steady stream of criticism over the years, it is the general site editing experience.
Users increasingly expect not to have to get their hands dirty with underlying code, and a slick new generation of competitors such as Weebly and Squarespace make great play of their simplicity from a user’s point of view.
Both the Front-end Editor and the Customizer Theme Switcher sought to attack aspects of this problem from different angles.
The Front-end Editor plugin attracted a lot of initial buzz with its promise of being able to alter content directly on a live site without having to use the admin backend.
The thinking here was that this would substantially simplify day-to-day content editing for non-technical users and attract a whole new class of user to WordPress as a CMS.
Development on the project unfortunately stalled towards the end of 2014 and – despite being initially listed as a high-profile Feature Plugin – it was eventually demoted to the Inactive Feature Plugins list.
Customizer Theme Switcher
The Customizer Theme Switcher, on the other hand, managed to make it through the entire process and was included in the 4.2 release. You’ll see it proudly listed on the Landed Features section of the Feature Plugin Tracking page.
Its journey to core was a swift one having only been officially proposed in February 2015 by Nick Halsey. His original proposal gives a coherent overview of the thinking behind the feature: providing a simple way of switching between already installed themes in the Customizer.
This feature is a significant addition to the Customizer and opens the door for future improvements such as installing themes directly via that route – a move that may force theme developers to simplify their UIs. The two features offer a useful comparison. In a sense, the Front-end Editor fell victim to its own ambition as the problem to be solved turned out to be more intractable than initially anticipated.
By contrast, the Customizer Theme Switcher is an excellent example of the sort of iterative, bite-sized approach that often bodes well for a feature’s future success and extensibility. Speaking of which, let’s look at the first of our three highlighted features that directly relates to it.
Feature 1: Menu Customizer
A former Google Summer of Code project, the Menu Customizer seeks to build on the solid example of the theme switcher by fine-tuning another important aspect of WordPress’ Customizer – menu management.
It offers a change that average users have been waiting on for a while; the ability to conveniently preview menu changes to their site in a safe, non-destructive environment as well as adding entirely new menus in the same manner.
It’s another potentially important step in the direction of allowing more intuitive previewing and editing of content for non-technical users.
At the time of writing, the Menu Customizer looked set to follow in the footsteps of its theme-switching predecessor with a smooth integration scheduled for the 4.3 release.
Feature 2: Shortcake UI
The Shortcode API has been available in WordPress since way back in 2008 but, while most WordPress users will have had cause to use it at some point, it hasn’t received too much love from developers over the intervening years.
That’s set to change with the selection of Shortcake as a Feature Plugin. It gives developers a simple way of registering a UI for their shortcodes so that users can actually preview its appearance in the editor window. It’s another small step in making life easier for end users in the admin.
The developers at Fusion have provided a great write-up of the overall intent of the project that’s well worth a detailed read. It includes the following image which sums up the potential utility of the feature rather elegantly:
At the time of writing, development on the final version of Shortcake was continuing with inclusion in the 4.3 WordPress release still very much on track.
Feature 3: The WP REST API
This plugin was closed on May 14, 2018 and is no longer available for download. The reason: Merged into Core.
And so, finally, to the pick of the bunch – the WP REST API.
The previous features we’ve covered could all be filed under the general heading of iterative improvements. The REST API, on the other hand, is a fundamental shift.
By opening itself up to the wider online world via the REST API, WordPress is taking the final leap from its humble blogging roots to being a truly modern application platform.
Developers from other languages and platforms are now free to interact with WordPress directly on a programmatic level and the implications for theme and plugin developers – along with site owners – are enormous.
Expect to see an explosion of integrations with mobile devices and other platforms as developers begin using WordPress as a CMS for their own separate front-end applications.
Automattic’s own Jack Lennox gave a great overview of the subject from a theme developer’s point of view in his recent London WordCamp presentation: Building Themes with the WP REST API.
The official WP REST API site is another essential place to visit for more information, with a series of excellent tutorials and getting started guides available in its resources section.
Hopefully by this stage you have a clear idea of how the feature selection process works and are suitably excited about some of the changes set to arrive in the immediate future.
As WordPress picks up ever more pace in terms of reach and power, the list of game-changing new features coming down the pipeline is only going to grow, so it’s always useful keeping one eye firmly fixed on future horizons.
Get in touch in the comments below and let us know which of the scheduled features have already caught your eye or what you’d like to see make it into future WordPress releases!