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Thursday 21 March 2019
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The thorny heart of WordPress 5

BitDepth#1179

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

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 6, 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.

The look and the feel of the site, the chrome of it, is governed by the theme.

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.

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.

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.

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 word processor 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.

This is early days yet for Gutenberg. It’s been 15 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.

Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there

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