The market for WordPress plug-ins has recently seen considerable consolidation. And even if you’re not close to the business side, it’s likely that some of these movements will affect you.
For example recent sales the wildly popular Advanced Custom Fields extension is a pretty big deal. The free version of the plug-in is active on over a million websites. And this does not apply even to those who use the commercial “PRO” version. It spent 10 years on a project by solo developer Elliot Condon. Now it’s in the hands of the Delicious Brains team.
Other extensions that change ownership are AnnaWP, Cadence Blocks and Kanban for WordPress. Then there was controversial go where WP User Avatar was purchased and converted into a completely different extension. We could go on, but you get the idea – there’s been a lot of movement.
What does this activity say about the status of WordPress and its future? Here are a few thoughts on what it all means. At least from this user’s perspective.
The WordPress ecosystem is maturing
WordPress has been in use since 2003 and has grown dominate supermarket. During its rise, many developers jumped into the surrounding ecosystem by releasing extensions.
In some cases, these extensions were a hobby or a intended way to go back to an open source project. Others viewed the expansion trend strictly as a business opportunity. Despite the intention, the door was open to anyone with the idea.
Along the way, the growth of WordPress brought with it an explosive use case. From simple blogging software, it became a full-fledged content management system (CMS). WordPress is now as likely to dominate a large corporate site as a mom and pop company.
This has completely changed the game for many plugin writers. User expectations are high. Stability and new features are important for success. Not to mention that we need to keep up with the massive changes to the WordPress kernel.
Frankly, it is becoming much more difficult for sole proprietors or small development companies to manage a popular expansion. Supporting a large user base while focusing on the future can become overwhelming.
It is therefore not surprising to see that some of these products are sold to larger companies. We saw something similar happen to ISPs back in the early 2000s. The more mature the market, the more difficult it has been for a small business to accomplish its mission. Pretty soon the interests of the companies bought them almost all.
While this may not fully reflect the case in this case, it does at least seem to point in the direction.
For better or worse, large developers hold more influence
It makes sense that the more popular extensions a developer acquires, the more users they will have access to. This offers companies plenty of opportunities to sell premium products and collect user data.
A company like Automattic, owned by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, already had an advantage in this area. They hummed along by doing a Jetpack extension for everything to do, among other things. But their 2015 acquisition WooCommerce added to their cache only.
The amount of product movement we see seems to allow more companies to join the party. It will take some time. But there may come a day when a typical Business site uses extensions from perhaps just a few large development houses.
This may cause some concern for some observers. When Google, Facebook, and Amazon like their weight around, ideas arise with something similar to WordPress. A few big players simply set the rules for everyone else.
However, there is reason to believe that things will not become quite dystopian. WordPress is, after all open source application. Anyone with the ability and desire to build an extension can still do so. Gaining attraction can only be more difficult.
The pros and cons of stabilization
Mergers will always be part of the business. For WordPress, both themes and plug-ins continue to change ownership for a number of reasons. That is something we should be used to now.
But as some of the more commonly used extensions are bought and sold, we see more than just a software exchange. The whole ecosystem can change with these movements.
On the other hand, user confidence and stability can be increased (theoretically) when a private entrepreneur sells multiple companies. Web designers and website owners don’t have to worry so much about the extension becoming extinct.
New ownership often means more resources to maintain, support, and expand the software. This can be a great thing for the WordPress community.
A potential downside is that consolidation does WordPress do what it has traditionally done in other industries. This means that a few large players are plundering huge amounts of market share while everyone else is hunting for scrap. The fear is that competition will shrink and that we may become too dependent on a small number of developers for most of the site’s operations.
We hope that the right balance can be achieved. In the long run, it is in everyone’s interests for the WordPress ecosystem to be diverse, stable, and affordable. It keeps CMS and the surrounding community thriving and sustainable.