Gutenberg was THE big topic of WordCampUS 2017, with the last two sessions each day focused squarely on crystalizing the vision of why and how it will move WordPress forward.
Discover why I believe Gutenberg is the future of WordPress, and the web, and what our transition into it may look like.
Here’s how I feel about Gutenberg after WordCampUS
First Holistic View of Gutenberg
Morten Rand-Hendriksen gave an awesome presentation on Friday titled Gutenberg and the WordPress of Tomorrow that finally gave us a full view of the vision Matt Mullenweg and the WP dev team have been holding about why we need to move this direction, and why getting started sooner rather than later is necessary.
And then there was a live demo of Gutenberg in Matt’s State of the Word 2017 address.
Gutenberg is not a replacement for the current text editor.
It’s a complete rethink of every site element, layout, presentation, and the way users will interact with the web.
Gutenberg is intended to keep WordPress on track for the web of the future.
Web VR is Right Around the Corner
Virtual Reality is drawing closer to becoming the norm every day. In fact, the tech is already here.
With Web VR, users will experience sites the way they want to instead of the way theme designers lay it out now, which is to be viewed in a static, bounded frame of either a computer monitor or mobile device.
Users will be able to customize their experience so that no matter what site they visit, common elements will always be in the same place for them.
In other words, if they always want site navigation to be in the top right of their virtual space, content in the center, and superfluous content, like sidebar material on the left or at the bottom, that is where it will appear for them.
Sound like unbridled chaos and a designer’s nightmare?
I used to think that way too.
I want the future Gutenberg promises to become our reality as quickly as it can happen.
It’s All About Blocks
I’m so very glad I saw Morten’s demonstration of where a block layout can take us.
Allowing a user to customize site elements in a virtual space means that all of those elements need their own standardized containers.
Elements in Gutenberg are in blocks.
Think of a block as a container.
Each block is defined as a type.
Gutenberg has several predefined blocks built in, like:
- Cover Image
The list above looks pretty much like the order of elements in a typical blog post, doesn’t it?
And there’s a reason the devs focused on these blocks first.
Starting with the Editor
One of the unfortunate things about how we are going to make the transition to Gutenberg is that it will be confined to the current text editor section.
I say unfortunate for 2 reasons:
- Gutenberg is way more powerful than that.
- Themes will need to be temporarily compatible with the way Gutenberg works as an alternative to the current text editor.
That last one is the whole problem with the first part of our transition phase into a new way of doing everything with WordPress.
To get us through the roughest part of the transition, Morten even let slip that we may need to fork WordPress into two versions.
We may end up with WordPress Classic, for what we have now, and Gutenberg Compatible, for everything after WordPress version 5.0.
But I think forking WordPress would be an even bigger mistake.
I see now why all devs need to get on the Gutenberg train as fast as possible.
Blocks are the future.
Learning to style and define them is going to take time. So, jumping in early is a good thing for devs.
But for site owners, they need to wait before jumping on the Gutenberg train.
Wait for Gutenberg Compatible Themes
Each type of block can have its own CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) and constraints.
For instance, a text block can have a limited set of styles for:
- Background colors
That’s crazy important so that content creators stay within the design/style guidelines of the theme.
There are even warnings for bad UX (User Experience) choices, like black text on a deep purple background.
Nobody could read that, and Gutenberg will warn the author not to do it. (That particular feature drew a roaring round of applause from devs/designers in the audience at WordCampUS.)
But, none of those necessary styling boundaries will be theme specific at this point.
Current themes won’t automatically support Gutenberg blocks as far as a fixed set of styles.
Those would have to be added by a developer/designer.
And that is why site owners need to wait for Gutenberg compatible themes.
- I fully understand the need to roll Gutenberg into the core of WordPress as quickly as possible.
- I can see why we’re starting with a Gutenberg text editor.
- I can’t see using Gutenberg for general editing in current themes.
Today’s themes will not have the proper styling boundaries needed to keep Gutenberg generated posts and pages from looking like a 3 ring circus.
We already have too many novice WordPress users still center aligning text and using headings for fashion.
Besides looking like a circus, such styling is insanely bad for SEO and mobile.
We certainly don’t want to exacerbate those issues by giving site owners unbounded styles, layout, and fashion choices.
And that’s the very thing that makes designers and devs cringe and has kept them up at night ever since Gutenberg first came out.
Mixing Old and New
Here are a few words of wisdom we can all relate to.
- Don’t put new wine in an old skin.
- Don’t update to Windows 10 software on a computer running Windows 7 hardware.
- Don’t try to use the Gutenberg editor in your current theme that doesn’t fully support it.
If we can just wait a bit for themes and plugins to catch up and properly support the powerful Gutenberg features, we’ll all make a smoother transition into a new way of creating content for the web.
The Text Block
So that theme and plugin devs can start building Gutenberg compliant stuff, it’s important for Gutenberg to be in the WordPress core.
And while we wait for all the newfangled stuff to come rolling out, site owners can stick with what’s working now.
The 2 Gutenberg Alternatives are:
- Classic Editor – plugin that will keep the text editor the same as what we have now
- Gutenberg Text Block – if you just can’t wait, use the Gutenberg editor, but only the text block, which may preserve your current theme styles.
My vote is to use the Classic Text Editor plugin when WordPress 5.0 first rolls out.
It’s already in the WordPress plugin repository and we should test it on our current themes as we get closer to the WP 5.0 release sometime in the spring of 2018.
Gutenberg Has a Long Way to Go
Reimaging the web is a big deal.
Manifesting it into reality is an even bigger challenge.
We have to start somewhere and we’ll get better with each step.
And we have to keep our expectations in line with reality.
If rocket scientists can suffer this,
we can all be more patient with open source developers.
NASA did hundreds of rocket launch tests before they ever put a manned capsule on one.
That’s kind of where we are with Gutenberg.
There is still a LOT of testing to be done before it’s ready for live production themes.
And those themes need to include styling for Gutenberg blocks right from the start.
When Will We Have Gutenberg Themes?
In his State of the Word address, Matt mentioned that there will be no new default theme released in 2017.
Working on a new theme that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table would have been nothing more than a distraction from the 3 main focuses he wanted to hold for development this year.
But, there will be a TwentyEighteen theme.
My bet is that it will roll out for WordPress 5.0, simultaneously with Gutenberg going into the core.
Matt hopes the roll out will be near April 2018.
My bet is that the TwentyEighteen theme will be fully Gutenberg optimized.
When I spoke with Brian Gardner at WordCampUS 2017, he stated that no changes were in store for Genesis or its child themes until Gutenberg goes through a few more iterations and settles down a bit.
I think that’s a very wise plan.
I believe the same will be true of most other premium theme frameworks and builders.
Theme Builders on Notice
The writing is very, very clearly on the wall.
Theme builders that use shortcode everywhere, and are bloated and slow, are not going to survive the Gutenberg transition intact.
There will be zero need for that kind of shortcode duct tape / chicken wire way of building a site or its individual pages and elements.
My bet is that theme builders will go to a total block layout that is fully Gutenberg optimized.
You will be able to custom build every type of page template you need on your site.
You’ll also be able create templates and reuse blocks.
So, for the current theme builders, it will be evolve or die.
I can see some companies letting current theme builders stay live with support only, but no new development.
It will be way easier to start from scratch on a Gutenberg compliant foundation and create a friendly user interface based on blocks, with a few standard templates to get DIY site owners started.
So, theme builder companies don’t have to fade away like pay phones if they are innovative enough to keep pace.
Designers, Get on Board Now
I think designers should get on the Gutenberg train now, especially with learning to style blocks.
You can’t wait for Gutenberg to roll into core next year. You’ll already be too far behind.
Right now is a great time to learn the core structure of blocks and be ready when it rolls into frameworks like Genesis.
And, be on the lookout for framework startups that will build exclusively on Gutenberg. Learning to style for those is going to be big business by 2019-2020.
Less Committee, More Devs, Faster Progress
In his State of the Word address, Matt mentioned how fast Gutenberg has been developed.
There are 2 main reasons for the fast track:
- Smaller leadership team
- More dev community involvement
Matt mentioned that trying quarterly releases for WordPress, with different lead developers was a nice idea, but making decisions by committee lead to only manifesting the lowest common denominator that everyone could agree on.
Since he has taken over lead development and narrowed updates to 3 main focuses, WordPress is making a LOT more progress a LOT faster.
And Matt intends to stay on as lead dev to see Gutenberg through to inclusion in the core.
Personally, I’m glad to see this happen.
I’ve long thought that WordPress development should be run more like corporate software development.
Have a core team in charge of the big changes and leave most of the “bells and whistles” of improvements and enhancements to the wider open source dev community.
Basically, that’s the whole idea behind the 40k+ plugins we have now.
They handle the extended functionality of WordPress and rely on its core for the bulk of their code.
Major Changes to the WordPress Ecosystem
One of the big concerns expressed by at least one dev in the Q&A session after Matt’s address was how Gutenberg would affect current plugin devs and theme builders.
It’s easy to see why they are concerned.
Gutenberg will have so many types of blocks built into the core that we won’t need half of the plugins we use now.
Just think of how many plugins have already been displaced with the new core widgets in WordPress 4.8 and 4.9.
The new Text Widget with its new Rich Text Editor and Add Media button suddenly made at least 10 plugins that added those functions extinct.
As Matt explained, the Gutenberg built in blocks will just be the foundation.
WordPress intends to standardize base block functionality.
It will be up to devs and designers to add the frills and invent new blocks or tie in functionality to what their plugins do.
It should actually make development easier and faster and the plugins lighter
Standardized blocks, with one style sheet, will radically speed up WordPress and site load time overall too.
At least that’s what I hope it will do.
Instead of a bunch of plugin css stylesheets and js code files, it can all be either in the core or in the theme’s block definitions.
That’s going to cut down on the number of requests, especially from external sources, and allow way more caching.
And that’s going to make for faster page load times.
We’ll see if my hope for it pans out.
The Transition Period
I’m very excited about what Gutenberg represents.
I’m also very realistic about what every one of us in the WordPress universe is going to experience as we all make the switch.
Here’s what I think the next 2 years of transition will look like:
- High resistance to change from users and developers and designers.
- Massive complaints about taking the time to learn/do something new.
- Crash and burn testing and updates that break stuff, both classic and Gutenberg compatible.
- Novelty designs that have a real wow factor and a low conversion rate (think sliders and Parallax).
- Dramatic increase in DIY theme/page design.
- A free for all of layout and presentation choices.
- A major shift from plugin to block development.
- Google and other web standard organizations better defining UX and ADA compliance standards.
- Google issuing more penalties for slow sites with bad UX and ADA compliance.
- New theme standards based on Gutenberg, UX, and mobile first design.
- A whole mindset shift that will make us wonder how we ever did things the old way.
Get a Grip
If you need something to relate all this change to, think about when cell phones first came out.
They were for the wealthy and the “have-not’s” made jokes about them all the time.
Can you even remember the last time you saw a pay phone anywhere?
That entire industry is gone, as are all the jobs related to it.
And not one mobile device user is sad for the change because our phones are used for way more than making voice-only calls now.
In fact, we’d riot if we had to return to the way things used to be.
The web is going to change like that too. It’s hard for us to even imagine how different it will be.
And WordPress is positioning itself to be a leader in that change.
Let’s Get a Move On
I believe the future of WordPress is bright.
Getting there is going to be a bumpy journey.
I also believe that the faster we can get Gutenberg into the core, the faster the demand will be for more bells and whistles that are compliant with its features.
And that will help more devs and designers transition their business over to be Gutenberg compatible.
And that will help site owners switch faster to totally new themes and plugins.
The whole thing will suddenly start snowballing.
The change will also spawn a new wave of demand for training at all levels, including:
- Code development
- Block styling
- Full theme dev/design
- Gutenberg use
The website ecosystem will survive this change just fine. In fact, it may even grow because of it.
How Do You Feel About WordPress and Gutenberg?
What are your thoughts on Gutenberg as the starting point of a total rethink of websites?
Are you excited about all the new freedom you’ll have with presentation?
Are you resistant to change and the learning curve?
Share your thoughts and let us know if you are a DIY site owner, dev, or designer so we know where you’re coming from.