Gutenberg on trial (again)

Will the “new editor” plugin forever change WordPress (for the better)?

Here’s one of my favorite Free Software moments:

No, thanks, I’ll stick to Windows.

If you’ve never heard anyone telling you that before, it means you probably answered this way in the past and, if that’s the case, relax: this is not going to be the snob-ish comment (that you would actually deserve) about it.

It doesn’t matter if you tried to talk someone out of their iOS for compatibility sake, wanted to install something ethical in your school’s computers or took a chance at convincing your boss to switch to other software for your own survival, I bet the results were often pretty much the same:

No, thanks, I/we will stick to [insert the nerve wracking software of your choice here].

Frustration can reach new heights if you happen to be involved in an activity that requires an high level of IT systems reliability: a person I know quit a good job at an airport’s air traffic control tower due to the stress of having continuous blackouts on their systems.

You can see that’s bad.

No, that’s actually REALLY bad.

So bad in fact, I’m compelled to start a quick philosophical rant: I often find myself thinking that conservatism is the worse among our cognitive biases because it runs deep in all of us. The implication that I find more dangerous about it is that it basically stifles scientific and cultural processes which would normally arise way faster: to be clear, progressive minded people are included in the equation.

While you ask yourself how did we get into politics, I’ll get back to my topic: the Gutenberg plugin.

The vision

The Gutenberg Team describes their project as such:

The goal of the block editor is to make adding rich content to WordPress simple and enjoyable.

OK, that’s kinda catchy and all but, how about the details on how to make it happen? More info are available:

The new post and page building experience will make writing rich posts effortless, making it easy to do what today might take shortcodes, custom HTML, or “mystery meat” embed discovery. WordPress already supports a large amount of “blocks”, but doesn’t surface them very well, nor does it give them much in the way of layout options. By embracing the blocky nature of rich post content, we will surface the blocks that already exist, as well as provide more advanced layout options for each of them. This will allow you to easily compose beautiful posts like this example.

So, Gutenberg has been written with the aim of helping WordPress users publish richer content, faster: a “text editor restyle”, if you wish, for the moment. But with so many more changes under the hood than they meet the eye and, especially, with even greater plans for the future.

The landscape

At the time of writing, WordPress dominates the CMS (Content Management System) scene, with a staggering 60% for a global Web usage of almost 30%, while Joomla and Drupal are solid in second and third position.

Such huge numbers have become a permanent target for all the other competitors, which include big companies with even bigger budgets: Google, Adobe, Squarespace, Wix and a few others. These are competitors that neither like nor support the license that the major three systems share: the GNU GPL.

Nothing new, of course: there have always been companies which despise users freedom and try to seduce their “useds” with pretty interfaces that require development costs which are not sustainable for most of the companies working in GPL environments.

You might now be asking yourself:

“How did these GPL CMSs become such a success if they were competing against such big budgets?”

You also did answer “No thanks, I’ll stick to Windows” before, didn’t you? Answering that would require me to write the aforementioned snob-ish comment, which is not what this article is about. As previously stated, this post is about the Gutenberg plugin.

The interface

I have been testing Gutenberg since a few months now: mainly on local installs but I did briefly tried it on some live sites, despite its clear warning by the Gutenberg Team:

Meant for development, do not run on real sites!

But I am that kind of a maverick, you know…

Being based on Calypso, there’s no surprise the Gutenberg UI closely resembles the Jetpack / experience but it does so by integrating pretty seamlessly in the familiar WordPress UI standards. I do reckon some users might need some time to get used to the new dispositions but the interface did not shock me neither surprised me: it felt to me like a natural evolution of the platform.

Gutenberg is, for the moment, pretty much a “block” editor so perhaps the single most obvious UI characteristic is its content preview window: we can from there move our blocks of content up / down by clicking on simple arrows as well as editing, managing or deleting each block.

I believe Gutenberg’s most relevant new concept to get acquainted with is the “Insert” mechanism: as we said, all our content becomes now several blocks which can all be “inserted” and configured one by one.

our beloved manual editor…

It is still possible to switch to the classic HTML text editor which, I believe, is not going to go away anytime soon, but I can guarantee you that after writing with Gutenberg for a while you won’t really miss it unless of course you need to manually add in-line CSS and / or to work with custom elements or such.

The code

Gutenberg is mostly written in javascript (ES6), which is not (admit it, already!) traditionally welcomed in hardcore PHP environments like WordPress: that being said, the Gutenberg Team is built around many different kinds of programmers and this coding melting pot is something encouraged by the Team itself. The result is pretty amazing to me: despite the huge work, the code seems simple, well structured and comprehensive.

The plugin is in active development at the moment and the Team left a few placeholder options but at its actual size of 2.6 Mb and all its functionalities, it seems to be a reasonably well-thought piece of software. Nonetheless, we enter now a territory  where logic does not apply: Web Comments.

The ratings

This is the aspect that led me to write this article in the first place. Gutenberg reviews are, I believe, emblematic of the conservatism I was talking about earlier: 2.5 stars out of 5. Reading the different reviews, you can have a sense of how groundbreaking this plugin is perceived to be: developers seem to be especially concerned and vocal, expressing all sorts of hopes, fears and uncertainties.

Actually, almost EXCLUSIVELY developers: and the discussions run deep, from json to jsx, REST API and all the other unpronounceable things we like to talk about. But, wait a sec: what was the aim of this project, again…?

The goal of the block editor is to make adding rich content to WordPress simple and enjoyable.

Right. Gutenberg should mostly help the ones who need more help building web pages content. And that category does not include web developers… does it?!


Gutenberg feels like a first step of a future deeper integration with the WordPress core, passing by the Customizer.

The aim of the whole project seems pretty clear to me: to try to guarantee WordPress dominance for the medium period by offering an interface which makes sense to the Minimum Common Denominator kind of WP user. And it does that by delivering a concept which certainly makes sense and it’s enjoyable to use. Something that, as I said, is really important in order to preserve the community, since Big Buck would always really love to dismantle it.

Not so many people realize that Gutenberg and Calypso seem to be the reason Facebook released its beloved React under an MIT license, forgetting about the previous “friends-with-benefits” agreement: kudos to Automattic’s consistency and foresight.

My take

I do not cheer for any team in software beside the Freedom one. With Free Software, the user is king and I do like Gutenberg because I believe it will bring more power to the community, and that is a good thing. But you know what comes with big powers, right? Exactly, so let’s be responsible by beginning to see this plugin for what it is: a small step into the future. Embrace the discomfort, swear for an healthy 5 minutes and move on and discover your new software.

And, how about taking a chance and stop “sticking to Windows”?

Because what really remains to be seen is of course the users reaction to the new concept. Remember the conservatism I was talking about? It slows down adoption of otherwise logical and obvious things when we would instead need the furthest away possible jump into the future.

Which is exactly what Gutenberg (the publisher) did and, apparently, keeps doing…

The facts revolution

I just released the first version of Visual Chap. Here’s the punchline, find my comments below.

Visual Chap is a WordPress Plugin which treats your readers by providing a unique experience  for your content.
A quick, animated, graphical, Wikipedia-powered search for everything you write… or just specific words.

It truly is a time in which we are all deeply scrutinized and many informations about us are easily available throughout the planet: my (and your) family and friends expect me (and you) to have a ‘clean’ on-line presence and applying for a job means making sure no embarrassing details about yourself are shared on the Internet. Ever.

And yet, somehow, the world’s most relevant players seem to be able to get away with any factual lie, among other things.

I believe the best antidote to a ‘post-truth’ era is ‘extreme fact-checking’ and machines all around us can help out with that: Visual Chap is my first attempt in that direction. I’m actually surprised something like this seems to have been flying a bit below the radars so far and many seem to not realize that the lack of correct informations inevitably leads to wrong choices in any field.

I think I can hear you saying: ‘Do you really think Wikipedia is infallible?’.
Never wrong? I believe there’s no such thing. And I also believe it’s valid for anything and anyone. Furthermore, the evaluation of what’s right or wrong changes accordingly to the amount of accurate informations received and therefore evolves over time.
But I will argue that Wikipedia is our best shot, at the moment: if we are expecting big companies to fact-check against themselves, we might be delusional.

Time will tell: in the meanwhile, please enjoy Visual Chap and make sure to spread it around!

Distributed Wisdom

I recently posted how happy I feel about my first WordPress theme being approved in the official directories: here’s my story about the reviewing process behind that.

My background? I had several previous experiences with WordPress and other CMS software but this was the first time I decided to write an actual package, publicly available, for any of them.

Much more than it sounds.

So, all excited, I begun collecting all the necessary resources and had my first contact with the Theme Review Team, in the form of a visit to its website. ‘Great!’, I said to myself, ‘Someone else is going to take care of pointing out my mistakes’. That was NOT what their website was saying, but I was too excited to argue with myself.

You can then imagine how excited I was when I heard the team released a Theme Check plugin, which ‘is an easy way to test your theme and make sure it’s up to spec with the latest theme review standards’. Oh yes! I was about to upload the theme for the review by then and I was so over the top, I actually ended up installing Child Theme Check, the plugin listed right next to it. Cool plugin…

So I installed the right plugin, run the check and, really excited, had the chance to watch about 100 red lines and an amazing rainbow of lines of every other color painting my screen: all of them pointing out different kind of mistakes I did building the theme.
What a variety!
And one of the reasons it felt amazing is that EVERY error line had instructions on how to fix it. How about that?

The review

Once I made sure the theme would pass the plugin check, I was ready to submit it for review, which is a pretty straight-forward concept: a reviewer picks up the theme in the queue and the process goes on until the code follows the requirements. How long it takes for a reviewer to pick it up depends on many factors but in my case it took about 3 months (many uploaded their themes at the same time).

Can you imagine the excitement I felt when the review started? I thought so.
It’s about Christmas time, indeed time for presents, and my reviewer picks up the theme and quickly reports to me a series of mistakes I did: mistakes that would have taken me quite a while to fix but most importantly that I couldn’t possibly have fixed at that time, with backpack in one hand and maps in the other, all ready for the end of the year family reunions. The reviewer, the best I could wish for, is Carolina, and I’m suddenly impressed by the level of knowledge, dedication and politeness. From now on you could read the whole ticket here but since I already know you won’t (it could take you hours), here’s my final review of the review: WOW!

A pretty short review, I give you that.
Incomplete? Certainly.
Easy? Right.
But, you have to agree, effective. And short.
I learned a lot from it and it sparkled my creativity: Carolina and the Team ended up in the theme credits, totally deserving it.

But the main reason I wanted to write this post is not really to thank the Team (which as I said, I already did thank) but because I’ve noticed that many theme authors don’t. And some actually write nasty things about it. I’m neither taking sides nor naive about the general lack of netiquette when I say that

a WordPress theme author cannot dislike the reviewing process.

You might have had a bad experience with it, of course. I got lucky, certainly.
But the whole point here is to review the code TOGETHER. Many authors seem to be convinced that the process would be better off if a reviewer would be paid to do it and I strongly disagree: in my experience it would just create conflicts of interests. The reviewing rules are always changing and adapted according to the community, of course, but what’s not to like in the core principle?

Someone points out the time it takes. Fair objection to which I’ll respond with an hyperbole: how many of your friends actually installed and tried the theme you created and that you asked them to try multiple times? If you asked enough people, chances are most of them didn’t even install WordPress if they weren’t already using it for their own projects and if they did install it, the actual ‘review’ from a friend who uses WordPress for the first time isn’t really that useful, is it? Being reviewed by a random enthusiast like yourself -with no money involved- backed by the larger WP community, is EXACTLY what you are looking for, as a developer.

I never contacted Carolina directly and I wanted to wait for this post to be published to do so. And if you wished my excitement about the review would drop by the end of this post, ‘glad to disappoint’.

Photo credit and license: if he’s stop with just a hug via photopin (license)

Handcraft Happiness

So my first WordPress theme has been approved, which of course makes me very happy. I just wonder if people around me can really understand WHY.
It goes without saying, I’m talking about people who can actually understand what I write: as you know, for all the others we are just people that ‘play with computers’… 😉

Of course it’s very nice to be ‘officially’ part of the community and all the things that come from being in touch with such amazing people – I’ll soon be writing a post about my great first experience with the Theme Review Team, as well. As cool as it comes.

But it’s not really it.

It’s certainly mind-blowing to be exposed to such an interesting and diverse audience from all around the globe: especially for the ones like me, which love being in contact with people from anywhere. Just great.

Still not really why I’m happy.

While certainly happiness is a complicated thing, I personally believe that true happiness does not come from what I can own but from what I can do to make a difference: especially going the extra mile. But most importantly, from what I can do to help. And I believe that because my life experiences lead me to.

Wait a sec: are you a preacher of some sort…?!

I wish, but I don’t have the right CV for that: I probably did more mistakes than you did and believe me, I know you tried hard… 😛

No, the reason I’m happy is because I use free software since a lifetime and it helped me in any way possible. I’m not going to list all the things it did for me because I couldn’t, I would certainly miss so many things. Therefore, anytime I can actually give back, I have that special buzz that credit cards ads, go figure, like so much: the feeling of priceless. Giving back and just feeling awesome. I swear, it feels just awesome. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

That’s WHY I’m happy! 🙂