Learn Something Difficult

Back in the day, I designed Flash websites. I was pretty good at it too, and it netted me a job as a Flash animator and designer at a small Copenhagen based studio. We made really cool things, some of them are probably still around.

As time went on, though, the shortcomings of Flash became painfully obvious. It was not born with any accessibility to speak of, it didn’t print well, and it wasn’t going to make the transition to mobile. Perhaps worst of all, it was hard to build complex projects in the tool. It felt like there was a ceiling to what you could achieve with Flash, and we were bumping into it all the time, without a way to significantly elevate it. As with many nascent technologies, the writing was on the wall for Flash.

A fair bit before we reached the end of the road for Flash, though, I had decided to look for opportunities elsewhere. I started with Movable Type, but the difficult setup, combined with a serendipitiously timed and delightful post by Mark Pilgrim, I quickly made the move to WordPress. Version 1.2 had just been released at the time.

WordPress was easy to install — the “famous 5 minute install” was not hyperbole. It was easy to hack on the themes it came bundled with; PHP was forgiving, and you could quickly get something up and running with a little copy/pasting. HTML and CSS was the same — just hit View > Source, and you could look at the skeleton of a website. Most importantly, documentation was easy to uncover. Back then most of what you’d find lived in the forums. Even so, for almost anything you wanted to do, there was a code snippet. With WordPress and PHP, there didn’t appear to be any type of website you could not build. This remains true today.

It feels like we are approaching a crossroads, though. There may not be a fixed ceiling to what PHP, HTML, and CSS can achieve together in the same way as Flash had, but the returns on development feel diminishing. The emergence of mobile as the key point of interaction and consumption especially, seems like it demands interactivity and performance that is not easy to achieve through traditional means. By virtue of being open source and built on web standards, WordPress can never share the fate that Flash did. But it feels like there’s an opportunity to turn the crossroads into an inflection point.

Modern web-apps, including progressive web-apps — webpages that behave as native mobile apps — depict a future where pages don’t reload for every click you make; where interactions can be fluid instead of abrupt. Notably, interactions can be fast.

While we can try to raise the ceiling of what’s possible with WordPress by continuing with PHP, HTML and CSS as the foundation, recent discussions in the WordPress JavaScript community about embracing a new framework, excites me. The potential modern JavaScript has for WordPress is huge, and can blow through the roof of opportunity in a truly material way. Just look at what ustwo did with a fully JavaScript: ustwo.com. 👈 That’s a WordPress theme. Now imagine the fluidity something like this could bring to the WordPress admin interface.

The benefits of modernizing the foundation of WordPress feel obvious to me. But there’s a cost attached: we all have to learn something new, and new documentation has to be written. That’s a high price to ask, for a tool that millions use. Speed, potential, and fluid interactions, are insuffient answers to the legitimate question: “Why?”

There is also another, much more meaningful, answer.

I grew up learning web development using “View Source”. There was no GitHub, there were no build processes, and JavaScript was usually additive to the webpages we built, rather than foundational and structural. The most worthwhile new thing I learned between 1990 and 2010 was moving from tables to CSS floats for layout. At this point I’m pretty proficient in those technologies, and I can rather quickly put websites together that are pretty good. Why should I learn a new way of writing JavaScript in order to add a little fluidity and speed to websites? Seems like it should be possible to sprinkle some of this on top of existing projects using tried and true technologies, no?

The answer is that it’s not about me. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance it’s probably not about you either. It’s about the next generation. It’s about kids growing up today. It’s about not only ensuring that WordPress remains a relevant tool for the kids learning to code today, but about honoring our responsibility to make sure these kids learn something really valuable.

In the face of robots, AI, machine learning and automation, it seems like learn something difficult is increasingly good advice for the next generation. By sticking with the old I deeply personally feel like we are doing a disservice both to WordPress, and to the kids learning it. In fact it feels like we have a responsibility to build for our kids rather than for ourselves.

By moving forward, even though it’s uncomfortable, we are being inclusive of what’s to come. Yes, it means many of us will have to learn something new, but we’ll be embracing the next generation of the web, and teaching kids how to get there. All the while, we’ll be drastically elevating what’s possible in WordPress. If we believe in this future, our job then becomes to start this process as soon as we can, write documentation and tutorials, and provide good migration paths.

Seems like it’s worth it.

These days I’m working on a project to build a new editor for WordPress, codenamed “Gutenberg”. It’s written in modern JavaScript, and it’s a great opportunity to help shape what WordPress can be in the future (and get your name on the contributor list!)

We’d love your input. If you’d like to help, join us in our Slack channel, #core-editorGutenberg is available as a beta version plugin, and you can try it now.

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