[Note: this is a guest post on WPTeach written by Andy McIlwain. Andy is a longtime member of the WordPress Community and works at Go Daddy. He has organized, and spoken at numerous WordCamps . ]
Gutenberg [https://wordpress.org/plugins/gutenberg/] is a plugin that replaces the default WordPress editor. It uses a dramatically different block-based interface. And it’s set to become the new default editor sometime this year, with the release of WordPress 5.0.
Development of Gutenberg began in early 2017. The goal, according to the project’s documentation [https://wordpress.org/gutenberg/handbook/]:
“The editor will endeavour to create a new page and post building experience that makes writing rich posts effortless, and has “blocks” to make it easy what today might take shortcodes, custom HTML, or “mystery meat” embed discovery.”
In other words, the existing Edit Post and Edit Page screen is going away.
This is one of the most dramatic changes to the WordPress admin interface since 2013. Back then, it was the “MP6” redesign that had everyone talking [https://make.wordpress.org/core/2013/10/23/mp6-3-8-proposal/].
Gutenberg has put the WordPress community in a tizzy, especially plugin developers, who have long relied on custom meta boxes [https://developer.wordpress.org/plugins/metadata/custom-meta-boxes/] for users to interact with their plugins.
For users, the biggest hurdle is going to be re-learning the WordPress interface. A change this significant will lead to confusion, especially among more casual users.
(If you’re interested in an in-depth walkthrough of the new Gutenberg editor, these posts from Elegant Themes [https://www.elegantthemes.com/blog/resources/an-introduction-to-the-gutenberg-editor] and Kinsta [https://kinsta.com/blog/gutenberg-wordpress-editor/] have you covered. I’m keeping things higher-level for this post, since development is still ongoing.)
Everything is a block.
WordPress treats content like posts and pages as a single document. If you want to create a custom layout or add other elements, you’ll need to use shortcodes [https://codex.wordpress.org/Shortcode] or inline HTML.
This isn’t a very user-friendly experience, but thankfully plugin developers have stepped up to fill in the gaps. Page builder plugins like Beaver Builder [https://wpbeaverbuilder.com] let us create custom layouts with a drag-and-drop interface.
But at the end of the day, these page builders are just injecting code into the document. And since there’s no WordPress standard, different plugins rely on different approaches.
Disabling a page builder plugin can result in a document filled with code, or even worse, nothing at all.
But what if core WordPress didn’t think of posts or pages as a single document?
What if a post or page was like Lego: a standard set of smaller, purposeful blocks?
That’s exactly the approach that Gutenberg takes. Every post or page is a collection of blocks.
Every paragraph is a block. Every list. Every image. Every table. Beyond that, developers can go and create custom blocks of their own [https://wpcouple.com/build-custom-block-gutenberg-wordpress-editor/]. And it’s all based on a standard that’s baked into WordPress core.
The response to Gutenberg has been… mixed.
We’ve seen mixed reactions since the beginning. Just take a look at the reviews of the development plugin on WordPress.org [https://wordpress.org/support/plugin/gutenberg/reviews/], or this essay from Josh Pollock on Torque [https://torquemag.io/2017/06/questions-concerns-first-impression-wordpress-gutenberg-editor/].
As you might expect with a project like this, the criticisms tend be louder. They cite concerns with a bloated user interface. They don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach with blocks. They’re anxious about a decline in flexibility, especially as a CMS. There’s a steeper learning curve for developers to create custom blocks. And there’s a lack of backwards compatibility with older plugins.
It hasn’t all been negative responses, though. There’s positive feedback about the lack of meta boxes, and that technical debt is going away. Gutenberg also puts content and writing at the forefront [https://www.mattcromwell.com/gutenberg-first-impressions/], which is nice.
What about page builder plugins?
If there’s a plugin category that stands to feel the most impact from Gutenberg, it has to be the page builders.
As I mentioned earlier, these plugins stepped up to create a better user experience.
Their user-friendly, code-free approach has made it possible for DIY’ers to build better websites. They’ve also made it easier for WordPress pros and consultants to build sites faster.
WordPress core + a theme + a page builder plugin. That combo has allowed WordPress to compete with SaaS site builders.
Until now. Until Gutenberg.
But page builders aren’t doomed. They just need to adapt. The role they fill in the future will just be different than the role they fill now.
The crew at Beaver Builder shared their own take on it [https://www.wpbeaverbuilder.com/page-builders-gutenberg-world/]:
“We’re currently working on compatibility between Beaver Builder and Gutenberg. Our team is attempting to tease out the best user experience for switching between alternate editing modes in WordPress. And we have some really fun experimental ideas that we can’t quite talk about publicly yet. Rest assured, we’re all excited about the opportunity to embrace the future of WordPress and the future of the web!”
And I think that sums it up nicely. Everyone’s still figuring it out. The Gutenberg development team is still figuring out what they’re building. WordPress developers are still figuring out how it will affect their projects. Plugin authors are figuring out how to adapt to the new editor interface.
And as we get closer to WordPress 5.0, everyone will be figuring out how to improve the user experience.
What’s the big vision for Gutenberg, anyway?
Matt Mullenweg, the founder & CEO of Automattic and co-creator of WordPress, set Gutenberg in motion with his State of the Word keynote at WordCamp US 2016 [https://poststatus.com/matt-mullenweg-state-word-2016/].
During his keynote he declared the REST API, Customizer, and Editor as priorities in 2017. Gutenberg development immediately kicked off at the beginning of the new year.
Fast forward eight months. Matt followed up with a post laying out a vision for Gutenberg [https://ma.tt/2017/08/we-called-it-gutenberg-for-a-reason/] and the role that it plays in the broader evolution of WordPress.
“Gutenberg meets our challenges and opportunities head on while simultaneously benefitting everyone who makes a living working in the WP ecosystem. It’s about a lot more than just blocks. Our Gutenberg moves every part of the WordPress ecosystem forward.”
He goes on to describe the Gutenberg-derived opportunities for WordPress designers, developers, and users. And I get it. I can see where he’s going with this vision. And I applaud it.
I just wish he didn’t wait eight months into development to share it.
“We’re moving mountains.”
I’ll leave you with this quote [https://wordpress.org/support/topic/catastophe-how-to-destroy-wordpress-in-2-weeks/#post-9393717] from Joen Asmussen, a designer at Automattic who’s working on the Gutenberg project. I think it sums up the scope of what’s happening quite nicely:
“It’s so very hard to move mountains. And in this case, we’re moving mountains. At some point, you have to grab a shovel and start. Moving a mountain with a shovel takes a while. In four months we’ve moved a fair bit, but evidently there’s a lot more still to move.”
I see huge opportunities here. Imagine a new ecosystem of free and premium Gutenberg blocks. Something akin to the existing ecosystem of free and premium themes and plugins.
Are you interested in following the progress of Gutenberg development? Keep an eye on the Make WordPress Core updates [https://make.wordpress.org/core/tag/gutenberg/]. To contribute, peruse the Gutenberg handbook [https://wordpress.org/gutenberg/handbook/]. and check out the code repo on GitHub [https://github.com/WordPress/gutenberg].
P.S. If you really, really hate the idea of using Gutenberg, don’t worry. There’s already a Classic Editor plugin [https://wordpress.org/plugins/classic-editor/] that runs alongside Gutenberg. It lets you use the familiar edit screen that we’ve call come to know and love/hate.