How did WordPress win?

How did WordPress win?

When we are passionate about something, it is sometimes hard for us to wrap our heads around why someone else might not be passionate about the same thing. You see this in the WordPress community often – fans and users of WordPress are often flabbergasted that someone might choose something else. Why would anyone choose Movable Type for instance?

Believe it or not, members of the Movable Type community often wonder the same thing. Most recently someone in the ProNet community, frustrated by their experience with WordPress, asked the question: how on Earth did WordPress win the battle over Movable Type?” The question was rhetorical, but sparked a very interesting dialog in our community.

In the past I have refrained from answering such questions, or if I did, I would not respond publicly, for reasons I can only attribute to a mentality that was beaten into me while I worked at Six Apart:

“Byrne you are a leader in the community, and your words carry significant weight. Therefore be very, very careful what you say. Very careful. Don’t do or say anything to jeopardize the company’s product line. In fact, if you want to say anything, why don’t you run it by me first? And Anil, and through marketing, and while you are at it through a couple other people as well… Cool?”

This time however, “to hell with it” I say. Let’s talk about this. Let’s see what lessons can be learned from WordPress so that others seeking to build a successful product can learn from it.

Why did WordPress win the Blogging Battle?

This is not the first time this question has been posed obviously. And in all the times people have sought an answer to this question, the answers are remarkably consistant. They are:

  • Movable Type’s licensing fiasco in 2004 angered the community and drove users to WordPress.
  • Movable Type is not open source. WordPress is.
  • Movable Type is written in Perl, while WordPress is written in PHP.

These answers are of course all correct to an extent, but do not account for WordPress’ success by themselves. Not by a long shot. The truth is that WordPress won for a whole host of reasons, including the act that WordPress has more themes, more plugins or a larger community. These too are important considerations, but these are by-products of its success, not the reasons for its success.

So let’s break it down shall we? Let’s talk about the commonly cited reasons for WordPress’ success, and some less well known reasons as well.

Movable Type’s Licensing Fiasco, and WordPress is Open Source

When Movable Type changed its license in 2004, it proved to be a significant turning point for WordPress. Yes, the change angered a lot of people and led to a lot of loyal Movable Type users deciding to switch to WordPress. More importantly however is that it gave WordPress the opportunity to change the nature of the debate, and let it very compellingly espouse the superiority of free over all else, even superior design, superior feature sets, and superior support.

What resonated with customers first and foremost however was not WordPress’ license, but the fact that it was unambiguously free. Back then no one knew that much about open source, much less the GPL, but what they did know was all that mattered: open source means free. Period. Forever.

The fact that Movable Type was in all reality free for the vast majority of people using it was irrelevant because it was never clear when Movable Type was free and when it was not. And what users feared most of all, is a repeat of exactly what happened the day Movable Type announced its licensing change: one day waking up to the realization that you owe some company hundreds, if not thousands of dollars1 and not being able to afford or justify the cost monetarily or on principle.

WordPress is easy to install

The fact that WordPress has always been easy to install, especially when compared to Movable Type, has always played a significant role in its growth and adoption rate. Technically, the reasons behind WordPress’ famed 5-minute install can be attributed largely to PHP’s deployment model, which was architected specifically to address the challenges associated with running and hosting web applications based on CGI, or in effect Perl 2 – the Internet’s first practical web programming language.

Furthermore, every web host likes to configure CGI differently on their web server, which led to a lot of confusion and frustration for a lot of users, and prevented anyone from authoring a simple and canonical installation guide for all Movable Type users across all web hosts.

One cannot underestimate how important ones installation experience with a piece of software is, because it frames every subsequent experience and impression they have of the product. So while blogging was exploding and people were weighing their options between Movable Type and WordPress, its no wonder why increasingly more and more people chose WordPress, even though it had fewer features, and an inferior design. Fewer people gave up trying to install it.

WordPress is written in PHP

Unfortunately it is impossible to avoid the Perl vs PHP debate when it comes to WordPress and Movable Type, and the fact that cogent and compelling arguments can be made and demonstrated that Perl knowledge has never been required, not once, not ever, to build a web site using Movable Type doesn’t matter. People simply feel more comfortable working with PHP. And even though the vast majority of people will never have or have ever had the need to hack the source code of their CMS, they are still comforted knowing that they could if they had to. People just never had that kind of comfort level with Perl and by association, Movable Type. Perl is just simply too scary.

That being said, the fact that people feel more comfortable hacking PHP did and still to this day, contributes significantly to the number of plugins and themes available on WordPress simply because the world of people who possess the bare minimum of knowledge necessary to write a plugin is so much larger.

Which leads me to another, and arguably more important reason why WordPress has been so successful: corporate adoption. If you are going to build your company on top of or rely heavily upon a CMS, and you are going to hire engineers internally to help you maintain it, which is an easier and cheaper job req to fill? A Perl engineer or a PHP engineer? Dollars to donuts, the answer is almost certainly PHP. Furthermore, if you know how companies often select the software they use, then you know that companies most frequently use the software their team members are most familiar with. And as more and more people started using WordPress at home, more and more people began recommending it to their bosses at work. And eventually, even though Movable Type dominated the Enterprise sector for so long, provided far superior support, and had a lock on the features Enterprises so often require (Oracle, SQL Server, LDAP support for instance) eventually Movable Type lost mindshare behind the firewall.

WordPress has a huge community

All of the factors above contributed in the long run to what ended up being WordPress’ single most important asset: its community. But its community was not born simply out of having a lot of users. Its community and ultimately WordPress’ success was born out a steady stream of people who began to rely upon WordPress as their primary, if not exclusive source of income. A healthy economy around WordPress consulting and professional services ultimately gave rise to “Premium Themes.” And once people began to demonstrate that there was a viable business model in selling themes, the theme market exploded. Now it is almost impossible to rival the selection of themes available on the platform, not to mention how cheap it is for the average person to get started with a cheap, good looking web site.

As more and more people though began making money using and building for the platform, as more and more people began thinking about, living in, and becoming invested in the platform, there became an ever increasing incentive for them to contribute back to the platform. Now, the great irony is that even for all of WordPress’ open sourcey, socialist, hippy goodness, it is the competition driven by the capitalist free market that drives much of WordPress’ innovation today.

Forces beyond anyone’s control

What’s fascinating of course is that all of the above are things that happened outside the control of any one person or company. For example, WordPress never chose its license, or the language it was written in.

That being said, there were also a number of tactics employed by Automattic and mistakes made by Six Apart, that collectively had an equal role to play in the fate of their respective platforms.

The Cult of WordPress

One thing that I personally feel mars an otherwise untarnished product is the fact that WordPress’ leadership and community chose to define itself early on not upon its own strengths, but upon the mistakes made by a young and inexperienced pair of entrepenuers. WordPress defined itself not as superior product by its own merit, but as the underdog. It succeeded by villifying Six Apart, by casting doubt on Six Apart’s integrity and by constantly stoking the fires left over from Movable Type’s licensing fiasco. Never for example have I seen a WordPress user work to establish a more positive and constructive tone when it comes to its competition.

This general lack of civility, much more apparent early on in WordPress’ life, contributed to an underlying sense that WordPress was the best and everything else sucked. This state of mind, love it or hate it, served WordPress greatly, because wars, even a meaningless “blogging war,” are only successfully fought when everyone knows who their enemy is. And Six Apart was not just a worthy competitor, it was the perfect enemy.

Automattic’s Switch Campaign

One thing rarely cited by the outside world, probably because it was not visible or apparent to anyone, was the systematic targeting of high profile brands to switch from using any competing platform to using WordPress. In fact, in the four years I was at Six Apart, if I had a dollar every time a significant and loyal TypePad and Movable Type customer confided in me that an employee of Automattic cold called them to encourage and entice them to switch to WordPress I would have quit a rich man. Automattic would extend whatever services it could, at no expense to the customer, getting them to switch. They would give away hosting services. They would freely dedicate engineers to the task of migrating customers’ data from one system to another. They would do whatever it took to move people to WordPress.

And once a migration was complete they did the single most important thing: they blogged the hell out of it. They made the story about how another customer switched from Movable Type or Type Pad to WordPress. They very smartly never let the sense that the world was switching to WordPress from ever disapating, even as TypePad and Movable Type was growing in users and revenue quarter after quarter.

Granted, no one switched to WordPress against their will. Simply put though, Six Apart was just not working as effectively giving people a reason to stay as Automattic was at taking away every reason a person had for sticking with their current platform.

Six Apart’s Purchase of Apperceptive

Even as Movable Type’s community started to become small in comparison to WordPress’, its community was still just as competitive. Its community was strong for the same reason that WordPress’ was – it consisted of a number of very bright, and exceedingly dedicated community members who were as invested in their respective trades as Six Apart and Automattic ever were.

Then Six Apart purchased Apperceptive. It was a great business move from a revenue stand point, but the consequences to the community were devistating in the long run. Here’s why:

Six Apart’s purchase of Apperceptive was successful, by all measure and accounts. Business increased, enterprises flocked to the platform and Movable Type was growing at an even faster clip. In order to meet the demand of the new business though, Six Apart began to hire the smartest and most innovative members from its community into its professional services team. Once hired, all of the awesome work they were doing got swallowed by the increasingly closed and proprietary Six Apart professional services ecosystem.

What’s worse is the fact that Six Apart sapped its community of its greatest leaders and contributors. And slowly over time, the number of professional and truly capable professional service providers got widdled down to a very small list. Six Apart, without knowing it or purposefully doing it, created a monopoly. Customers coming to the platform, looking for an alternative to Six Apart for their professional services needs, found only a hand full of independent contractors, contributing to the sense that Movable Type’s community was too small to support them.

Six Apart’s Failure

Finally, I will add one more contributing factor to WordPress’ success: Six Apart’s failure. The reasons behind its ultimate failure as a product company are many, are complex and in many cases very nuanced. But the general consensus is apt: Six Apart severely hampered its own ability to compete effectively by spreading its many exceptionally talented resources across too many products.

In short, Six Apart lacked focus.

If Six Apart, early on, had made the decision to put all of its resources behind a single product and codebase, TypePad or Movable Type for example, then I think the blogging landscape would be a fundamentally different place today. WordPress would undoubtedly still be popular, but it might still have a very potent adversary and competitor helping to drive innovation and the technology behind blogging.

Who won the war?

It is pointless to refute that WordPress came out on top. But I personally find the conceit of a “war” to be faulty premise. The “war” between WordPress and Movable Type was either manufactured or the natural by product of a rivalry that two communities had come to define themselves by. It is a mentality I find fundamentally poisonous to all who engage in it because it promotes the idea that one platform is inherently better than another. The truth of course is that each platform, be it WordPress, Drupal, Expression Engine, Movable Type, Simple CMS, TypePad, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or what have you does different things uniquely well. That is why I prefer a perspective that embraces and recognizes each platform for its strengths, and never denigrates those who have made a personal decision to choose one platform over another.

All this being said, no doubt people will always press the question: is WordPress’ success evidence that it really is a better product? The answer to that is a no-brainer to those who have already made up their mind.

For my part, I still maintain that Movable Type is an successful and yes, even a great product. Afterall, it continues to support me, not to mention many of my friends and their families. It also supports a very successful and profitable company and ecosystem in Japan, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of people world wide. Plus, who can ignore the fact that Movable Type still powers much of the web today, and is in use by some of the largest and most influential media properties on the planet.

For those reasons, and a whole host of others, both personal and technical, I choose Movable Type, and of course Melody. And I would choose it again and again and again given the opportunity. But that is me.

1 To the best of my knowledge, not once did Six Apart ever police or enforce its license. From the day Ben and Mena started collecting donations to fund the development of Movable Type, Six Apart relied exclusively upon the honor system when it came to collecting payments for people’s usage of the platform. One story in particular exemplifies Six Apart’s attritude towards its very own license, a story that can only be described as legend within the walls of Six Apart: that the Huffington Post, the poster child of Movable Type, never actually paid for their license to use the software. To this day, even as Huffingpost is sold for over $350,000,000, its success can be attributed to the effectively free platform it built a business on.

2 What makes Movable Type hard to install has actually nothing to do with Perl at all. It has to do with CGI. CGI was originally architected to allow any script to be run and invoked via an addressable URL, and when that capability was first introduced system administrators and programmers feared the security ramifications of allowing any arbitrary script to be executed in that fashion. Therefore, they instituted a number limitations enforced by the web server: 1) only certain directories on your web server can possess the ability to run CGI scripts, 2) only executable files can be invoked via CGI, and 3) no static files (html, css, javascript, or any text file) can be served from the same directory as a CGI script. These limitations are often inappropriately attributed to Perl only because Perl became the dominant, if not the only scripting language used to author CGI based web applications early on.

Disclaimer: Byrne Reese is the former Product Manager of Movable Type and TypePad and worked at Six Apart from 2004 to 2008. Byrne Reese is now a Partner at Endevver, LLC, a premiere Movable Type and Melody consulting company, as well as the chairman and a leading contributor to Melody, a fork of the Movable Type platform.



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