Growing app ecosystems

On Hacker News I came across a thread with some good insight into app developer experience at Shopify:

The interesting thing about app ecosystems is that, in a way, they’re similar to social networks from a creator perspective: App developers and creators are trying to build a following/customer base on a new platform.

For example, on Youtube, Instagram, etc., the elite with the biggest followings get the attention, making it hard for new creators to build a significant following after the winners are established.

The same thing happens in app ecosystems (Shopify, WordPress, etc.). Within each category the winners have the most reviews/installs, which means more sales, which means paying for better placement/advertising, etc. The nature of these ecosystems exacerbates the power law.

However, that’s what made TikTok so revolutionary. They approached it differently:

Alex Zhu, Head of Product at TikTok, likens the process to creating a new country and giving a greenfield of opportunities to a new class of creators.

The above excerpt is from this article, which is a great overview of the rise of TikTok.

In previous eras, most of the spoils went to the platform’s earliest adopters – mining value gets harder as the platform ages. TikTok, on the other hand, promotes all content regardless of who made it or how many followers [social capital] they have.

The above excerpt is from this writeup from Casey Newton.

It’s not exactly comparable since apps are different than content in terms of the costs of a poor recommendation. But there may still be something to learn here for those growing app ecosystems by jumpstarting with disenfranchised developers hungry for new places to build and establish themselves.

Subtracting to Multiply

A recent article on Stratechery connected a few dots for me.

Digital transformation

I’m a big fan of Notion. Lately, I’ve been playing with the Bulletproof Workspace template. I now better understand why people are building on Notion.

The interesting thing about Notion and Airtable is they are part of another digital transformation trend (in addition to no-code/low-code). They use the database to standardize and commoditize, which opens up new opportunities for others (especially for no-coders) to build on top of.

Standardize on a lowest common denominator

Twitter/Facebook did the same thing as Ben described: They standardized news, images, video, links, updates, life events, etc., into a more consumable format: the newsfeed, which unlocked something new and exciting. The feed is now how most of us consume information.

Something similar is happening with a subset of business applications. Over the past 20+ years, we’ve seen the era of monolithic applications: this one for a website, that one for an online store, this one for flyers, that one for client proposals, this one for business cards, etc.

But through the same standardization and commodification lens: an image, paragraph, heading, media card, form, etc., are similar in each context (HTML → $format). The document dimensions, selection of features, ‘publish’ action, etc., might be different, but the creation experience is consistent. It’s all just an editor moving HTML around.

The Gutenberg project of WordPress leverages this concept well: the fundamental element is a block. I expect we’ll see more here in the future since the implications for the customer experience (learn once, do anything) and the developer experience (build once, run anywhere) are compelling, e.g., one app marketplace to rule them all.

The ‘good enough’ threshold

Though, it’s still TBD when this new ‘thing’ becomes greater than the sum of its parts–when it becomes good enough to replace the current model (better doesn’t matter until it’s good enough).

For example, my iPhone’s camera, phone, calculator, flashlight, etc., are all worse than the standalone version of each, but the iPhone as a whole was good enough to outweigh that years ago. 10X better would be an understatement, but that’s why these digital transformations are so powerful.

Why WordPress Needs Gutenberg (& the Future of Page Builders)

WordPress is the largest CMS in the world, powering ~1/3 of all websites.  The WordPress editing experience hasn’t changed much in over a decade and Gutenberg now aims to completely reinvent it.  That’s a big deal.

It won’t be easy, but here’s 1) why it’s worth it and 2) what it means for page builders.

The Wild West

The WordPress ecosystem has been trying to improve the site editing experience since before plugins entered core in WordPress 1.2 (2004).  There have been page builders, theme frameworks, front-end editors, etc. all trying to improve the WordPress experience.

Like every meaningful advancement, there are these wild west days of churn to find something that works.  There have been a lot of great tools and learnings, but there has also been a lot of fragmentation across dozens of page builders, theme frameworks, etc. that don’t work well together.

If you’ve been around WordPress for a while you’ve seen some cringe-worthy examples of this.  For example, a site with a bloated “multipurpose” theme…using a page builder…and using WooCommerce or some similar monstrosity. It’s a mess.

Why do we have page builders, theme frameworks, shortcodes, custom post types, and more?  All to fill the gap between what WordPress core does and what users want.

What Users Want vs. What WordPress & Page Builders Do

WordPress is a Broken System

The WordPress ecosystem is built around a broken system with bloated themes, widgets, shortcodes, custom post types, menu items, page builders, etc.  These DO NOT exist because they’re the best way to build a website.  They DO exist because they’re compensating for WordPress’s shortcomings in fulfilling users’ needs.

Gutenberg aims to standardize and add these foundational elements that WordPress lacks.

Gutenberg-ization: Everything is a Block

While experienced users may be used to this (like you get used to a bad knee and don’t notice limping), it’s a bad experience for new users and it’s holding WordPress back.

This is why WordPress needs Gutenberg.

Will Gutenberg Kill Page Builders?

This is a question I see asked a lot.  The answer is yes, but not how you think.

TL;DR “page builder” is a description of “how” page builders work, not “what” page builders do from a jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) perspective.  There will always be a market for the what.  It’s only the how that’s changing.

For example, page builders provide a flexible interface (modules, drag & drop, etc.) that gives customers advanced customization beyond WordPress core.  The flexible interface is only relevant because it enables the customization.  The customization is what customers want.

Page builders had to provide a flexible interface in order to provide customization. Gutenberg is changing this.

To reiterate, the only reason page builders provided the interface (via their own frameworks) was because WordPress didn’t.  They had to provide the interface in order to give users what they want.

In a sense, Gutenberg frees page builders to focus on what customers actually pay them for: advanced customization beyond what WordPress core does (or will ever do).

Page Builders Will Evolve into Customizers…

Over the next few years as Gutenberg develops we’ll see page builders migrate from their old (own) frameworks to Gutenberg and evolve from page builders into customizers.

This should provide a major advantage as they can redeploy resources from maintaining (and supporting) their own frameworks to focus on building the best customization experience in innovative ways.

Gutenberg allows page builders to focus on what customers actually pay for: advanced customization beyond what WordPress core offers.

But will pure customization be a big enough market for customizers (page builders) to thrive in the future?  Oh, yeah!  Here’s why:

  1. Gutenberg will be in 100% of WordPress installs 5.0 and later–far that more any page builder today.
  2. A more flexible, easier to use core editing experience will only accelerate WordPress growth, meaning a larger TAM (total addressable market) for customizers.
  3. Customers are divinely discontent.  Their expectations will continue to rise as they always have.  Only page builders customizers that leverage Gutenberg and focus resources on improving the customization experience will meet these growing expectations.
  4. Bloated multipurpose themes will die out as functionality shifts out of themes.

There will be thousands of new opportunities to make money with WordPress. The future is bright for those who adapt.

And Some Page Builders Won’t Evolve at All

There will also be page builders that fail to make the transition.  They’ll try to stay relevant by adding “Gutenberg compatibility” with their old page builder frameworks.  This is like adding “electric compatibility” to gas-powered vehicles–it misses the point.  Perfect reasoning from wrong premises.

But we can’t fault page builders for behaving this way.  Switching to Gutenberg when you have a paying customer base using your old framework seems counterintuitive.  Companies are supposed to leverage their advantages, not destroy them, right?

They’re sticking to what made them successful in the past, oblivious that it’ll doom them in the future.  Sometimes you have to disrupt yourself before somebody else does.  The hard part is knowing when.

This is the classic problem with incumbents.  For example, despite being one of the first to mobile, Microsoft was too focused on what made it successful in the past and ported Windows to mobile (made Windows mobile compatible) rather than thinking mobile-first like Apple and Android.  Sound familiar?

On Resistance to Gutenberg

There’s resistance to Gutenberg in the community, primarily by existing WordPress users used to the way things are.  If you’re an existing WordPress user (especially a freelancer or agency) it can be scary to think about how this could impact your business.  Some reasonable questions and concerns are:

  • Will this make it so clients don’t need my services?
  • I already have tools and a system that works for me, will this break them?
  • I don’t have time to learn anything new.
  • This just creates more work I don’t get paid for.
  • The plugins and themes I rely on won’t work anymore.

…and dozens more.These are all reasonable concerns and the uncertainty of not having answers can create fear that manifests as resistance and anger, especially when livelihoods are at stake.

The WordPress team could have handled the approach and messaging around Gutenberg better.  If existing users (especially WordPress professionals and plugins/theme authors) were brought along better, then Gutenberg would have more community support.

But this is very hard work and they’re human.  They’re also volunteers dedicating a nontrivial amount of their limited time on this earth to improving a project we all rely on and use for free…so let’s cut them some slack, appreciate their efforts and contribute through constructive criticism.  This is what makes WordPress great.

The great thing is that the only reason this is happening (people passionate about making WordPress better and people passionate about not ruining it) is because we all care deeply about WordPress.  Remember, this is what makes WordPress great!  Let’s get through it together.

Gutenberg still has a long way to go to earn the confidence of the community and it’ll take more than just polishing the experience.  It’ll take listening to the community, addressing the concerns around Gutenberg like helping existing professionals adapt to the change, ensuring more plugins are compatible, etc.  Even hosts should be involved and educating their customer bases.

This is a community project and it’ll take the community to make it successful.  When it is, we’ll all have more of the growing WordPress pie.

Here’s to 50% and the next 15 years!