WordPress’s New Coke moment: seven years later

by Nate Hoffelder

After a decade of running The Digital Reader, Nate is a veteran web publisher with experience in design, maintenance, recovery, and troubleshooting. What little he doesn't know, he can learn.

May 6, 2024

Back in 2017 I wrote a blog post about the then new Gutenberg pagebuilder tool which was close to being released to the public. It was still in beta at that time, and I thought it could be a ground-shifting change to how we build websites.

Recent experiences with Gutenberg have inspired me to revisit that old blog post, and reflect on whether Gutenberg lived up to the hype/potential.

It didn’t. Gutenberg is merely one of many pagebuilder tools in the WordPress ecosystem.

Frankly, Gutenberg still hasn’t lived up to the potential I saw in 2017, but that is at least partially because I didn’t really understand Gutenberg’s place in the WordPress ecosystem.

I was a very new web designer in 2017. I was still using templates to build websites, not page builders like Elementor or Divi, and I had not yet realized that naming my business Valiant Chicken was a bad idea (yes, it does sound like the name for a food truck, LOL).

I am older now, and more experienced. Back then I wondered if Gutenberg would see widespread adoption, but now I can see that it has not, which is okay. In my opinion Gutenberg was never about solving a problem with WordPress. Its whole reason for existence was to solve a problem for Automattic, the company that owns/controls WordPress*.

While WordPress is an open source platform and it’s free for everyone to use, ownership/control matters because in open source platforms ultimately there is one guiding hand setting a course. It might be a solitary developer (as in the case of the Calibre ebook library app), or a foundation (as in the case of Libre Office), or in the case of WordPress, a tech company.

The thing about ownership/control of WordPress is that it’s clear now that WordPress never really needed Gutenberg. It already had several similar pagebuilder tools which worked just fine, including a couple freemium pagebuilders where the free version was actually quite useful (Elementor is one example).

Gutenberg might not have solved a problem for WordPress, but it did solve a problem for Automattic, the company that owns/controls WordPress. It is now apparent (to me, anyway) that Automattic knew they needed to add a pagebuilder to their hosting platform if they wanted to stay competitive with alternatives such as Squarespace and Weebly.  At that time said hosting platform was not compatible with pagebuilders such as Divi and Elementor, so Automattic introduced Gutenberg as the solution (I would bet Automattic also probably tried to buy an existing pagebuilder, and was rebuffed – but that is just a guess on my part).

The reason why I am getting into the intended purpose of Gutenberg is that it helps us to understand why Gutenberg never lived up to its potential.

You see, it is my view that Automattic didn’t need Gutenberg to supplant pagebuilders like Divi and Elementor; Gutenberg was always supposed to be a core feature of Automattic’s hosting platform, and it does that just fine. Sure, Automattic would not have objected to Gutenberg dominating the pagebuilder market; in fact, they probably like how several independent developers took Gutenberg as a starting point and expanded on the idea.

So when I say that there are many tasks which are easy in Divi or Elementor (setting margins or padding, for example) which are hard in Gutenberg (you basically have to code the padding in CSS), or that Gutenberg is still a UX nightmare, or that Gutenberg’s live edit mode still falls short, or that Gutenberg has turned editing a menu or the sidebar into a nightmare, that is okay because Gutenberg was never supposed to be as good as Elementor or Divi.

Or at least I hope that is the case; otherwise I would have to label Gutenberg a failure for still not matching its competitor’s features after more than seven years of development. If Gutenberg was intended to supplant the competition then I would mourn the tens of thousands of hours of work that had been sunk into it **.

So really, Gutenberg did not change everything, and in fact there is not only a large number of designers who continue to use a competing pagebuilder, but also an even larger number of WP users who have resisted Gutenberg by installing plugins which reverted the widget and editor menus to their classic interface.

And that is okay, because it succeeded in the one way it was supposed to.

* Someone is probably going to point out that various parts of WordPress belong to a non-profit foundation, not Automattic. I would remind you that core WordPress development is lead by Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of Automattic.

** I can think of several better ways for WP developers to have spent their time than Gutenberg.

  • For example, they could have tweaked the WordPress code for the RSS feed so the feed included a post’s CSS formatting, and also the featured image.
  • Or, take the scheduled post feature. No, please do take it away; it doesn’t work most of the time.
  • Speaking of things that don’t work reliably, so far as I can tell the export feature hasn’t been touched since WP was launched 15 plus years ago. It gives you an XML file with links to images, but if it was upgraded to JSON files then the images could be included in the file itself (and the export file would double as a real backup for the site). Also, the WP import feature is iffy; it doesn’t always grab all the images (featured images almost never make it over).
  • Speaking of images, did you know that it is SOP for an image uploaded to a WP site to then be converted to a dozen or more smaller images, most of which are never used? If that were changed to only creating the image sizes used in a page or post, we could save a lot of storage space. (Divi, for example, created 17 smaller versions of the featured image I used for this post, and I didn’t need any of them!)

Hi, I'm Nate.

I build and fix websites for authors, and I am also a tech VA. I can build you a website that looks great and turns visitors into fans, and I can also fix your tech when it breaks. Let me fight with tech support so you don’t have to.

My blog has everything you need to know about websites and online services. Don’t see what you need. or want personalized help? Reach out.

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