The thorny heart of WordPress 5

Above: WordPress has always been codenamed after jazz masters. WP5 is named for Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes.

BitDepth#1179 for January 10, 2018

WordPress is the most popular content management system (CMS) in use today for building constantly updated websites.

The longest serving flag-bearer of the Web 2.0 age – that old descriptor that signified the evolution of the Internet from publication to participation – WordPress has succeeded because it is both easier to use than most of its competition, feature-rich – both on its own and because of a vast developer community – and cheap, since a basic installation costs nothing.

Pretty much everyone has been to a WordPress website, though most will have no idea that they have. The software has long matured from a way to post a blog into a powerful website builder with almost infinite capabilities.

The newest version, released on December 06, 2018, is an effort to push those abilities further, but for some users, there’s a bit of glowing kryptonite in the new release, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

WordPress consists of three systems that are designed to work together. At the core of the software is a MySQL database into which all the information that you add to the website gets organised.

Very few users will ever look at that part of WordPress and to be honest, it terrifies me too. If you don’t know advanced database management, you really have no business poking around in there.

The look and the feel of the site, the chrome of it, is governed by the theme. Superhuman WordPress developers can code a theme from the ground up, but most of us down here on the ground just grab a predesigned theme and install it. WordPress offers a range of decent themes, and it’s rare for even a sophisticated theme to sell for more than around US$40, support included.

At the theme level, you can change a WordPress installation from a blog into a portfolio display site or even an online store.

Updating content on the website happens in the admin panel, which until December included a pane that worked like a word processor Once you figured out that out, the rest of the admin pane began to make sense as you went along.

The new admin panel, code-named Project Gutenberg and foreshadowed heavily in the months leading up to the release of WP5, completely changes that.

Everything in the Gutenberg editor is based on chunks of code that are organised as modular blocks.

The WP5 Blocks interface

Anyone who has built a project using Pagemaker, Quark Xpress or InDesign will immediately recognise the metaphor.

The change makes sense when you consider how WordPress is used today.

Many WordPress sites aren’t publications, despite the software’s roots as a publishing tool. They are ecommerce sites, online portfolios and the online face of major companies.

WordPress isn’t just about writing a post anymore, it’s about designing a unique and powerful web presence and being able to organise pages using virtual blocks is going to be a big win for many users.

The idea isn’t even new. Several major theme releases are designed as visual builders, implementing this very idea on a third-party framework and now it’s part of the WordPress core.

But if you’ve been comfortable writing in the old admin pane, now a plug-in called the Classic Editor; you’re going to be in for a surprise.

Since most WordPress users are likely to be more familiar with a wordprocessor than professional page layout software, seeing your 1,500 word rant broken up into dozens of blocks will be startling.

Some basic publishing features also seem to be broken. I’ll often add a thumbnail of a photo to a post that opens in a lightbox. I can’t find anything that does that for an inline image, only one that’s floating between paragraphs, which I don’t want at all.

Even worse, the mobile version of the WordPress app doesn’t understand blocks either, at least not yet. After composing a post in a browser, I opened it on my phone and ruined it (the app does warn vaguely about possible problems).

I had to go back to the browser interface to fix the glitches.

I’ve been trying out new third-party blocks to fix my immediate problems, but with no joy.

What the Gutenberg editor does get right is pull-quotes, which were difficult to do in earlier versions of WordPress.

What the Gutenberg editor does get right is pull-quotes, which were difficult to do in earlier versions of WordPress. There’s a block for that and it works.

This is early days yet for Gutenberg. It’s been fifteen years since WordPress was first launched and the versions that are available today would have been unrecognisable to early adopters of the software.

Even if Automattic, the official developers of WordPress, lapses on these issues, the software’s enthusiastic and resilient developers are probably already working on Gutenberg’s shortfalls.

For everyone else, the Classic Editor is a download away and may be an advisable option for website developers who open the admin panel to clients so that they can update their sites.