Gutenberg isn’t there yet…

Yesterday, I restarted this personal blog with a nice long stream of consciousness that should serve nicely as an “about me” or “about this site” post typed out in WordPress‘s new editor Gutenberg.  Gutenberg is the new editor coming to WordPress in version 5 that is one of the biggest changes in how posts and content will be managed on WP sites.

Gutenberg also breaks things.

You see, WordPress has (for quite some time) been bundled with a mediocre average TinyMCE-powered editor – now called the “Classic Editor”.  It’s the McDonald’s Hamburger or a shrimp appetizer at a large chain restaurant… not good, not bad – just there and we’ve gotten used to it.

The classic editor works for the majority of web sites that use WordPress, along with the shortcomings and the workarounds needed to make things happen the way we want them to be displayed on our sites.  On the surface, Gutenberg looks like a dramatic improvement with blocks-based editing similar to Divi or Elementor (both personal favorites in the WP site building tool box).

Unfortunately, the minute you step past the entry level – things get a little hairy.  First, I wanted to add something through the WordPress iOS app to yesterday’s post… which immediately broke the blocks and formatting of the entire post.  Here’s where I can see the experienced among us reading this going, “the same things happen with Divi or Elementor, what did you expect?”

I expected that a soon-to-be-default editor would be easier to be integrated with existing tools.  Naive of me, yes.  Let’s step back for a second and look at both sides of this editorial mess.

Why does WordPress need the upgrade?

WordPress dominates a large chunk of the content management systems deployed online.  Whether you subscribe to the plans on wordpress.com or download your own copy to deploy on almost any PHP-compatible server (this one is a combination of nginx and Apache on Debian) – it runs sites from personal blogs and small businesses (*ahem*) to popular online destinations to Fortune 500 companies.  So any changes to the “core” of this platform are going to have dramatic effects no matter how positive or negative they are perceived.

Since WordPress first grew into such a dominant force, its competitors such as Medium or the Ghost blogging platform have created new ways to author content that is a generation beyond the classic editor being replaced.  Meanwhile, site builders (and not just WP-powered builders like the ones mentioned earlier) and creators such as Wix and Squarespace have created new pressure on the “entry-level” of the market that WordPress used to reign over supremely.  I developed sites in earlier competitors such as Drupal and Joomla – and there is a reason why almost all of my work over the past few years has been inside the orbit of the WordPress world.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think that Drupal is an amazing platform – but the ability to introduce a client to WordPress without significant training overhead has kept the WP platform well ahead of the others (at least in my opinion).

With the “barbarians at the gates”, something has to change – and the answer seems to be “Gutenberg“.

The Pros of Gutenberg

When I first decided to start testing the new editor on this site, I was immediately impressed with the presentation and writing environment.  I could immediately see where years of using “shortcodes” and relying on third-party plugins for advanced presentation were now part of the core experience.  Someone new to WordPress would have a much easier time getting some advanced formatting from their site without learning another tool that gets called from the classic editor.

At the heart of the Gutenberg editor is the change that every page is composed of blocks.  This is a “paragraph” block; we have a “heading” block just above the previous paragraph block; that cool looking image right after my introduction is a “cover image” block.  This is very similar to Medium, which is a fantastic authoring experience.

I was immediately impressed at how well this new editor would also display on the tiny 1024×600 screen of my Linux-based netbook I keep stashed at the firehouse for the days I forget the big laptop.  Screen real estate is well used and it scales nicely from that small resolution up to a full HD display.  I can see where this larger focus on the content is helping me write better posts as I type this critical opinion about the new editor experience.

Switching to a text/code view, the various blocks are easy to follow and there does not appear to be a dramatic “clutter” in the code compared to some visual editors.  Viewing the editor through Safari on my iPhone was still a pleasant experience compared to the “classic editor”.  Other weaknesses in the “stock” WordPress experience are addressed with easily added anchors, native table blocks, and text column blocks.

So far, there seems to be a lot of positive reasons to make this switch…

The Cons of Gutenberg

Part of the dominance of WordPress has been a backwards compatibility that has helped some sites evolve with the WP code base for more than a decade.  However, the cost of this is a platform with large amounts of outdated or bloated code (especially once you add the plugins and themes, some legacy, that have grown alongside the same versions).  Modern standards have not been implemented following the call of developers under the umbrellas of ease-of-use and backwards compatibility.

With a “Catch 22” of this size, the sudden switch to a modern editor that will break years of compatibility is a shock to the ecosystem and circumvents many of the backwards compatibility problems laid out before developers.  However, this also means that many essential features from plugins that provide special content types to custom fields will be inevitably broken upon the next major upgrade.

Looking at the small portfolio of projects in my studio, I can see where everything from the Untappd integration for the brewery to the control panel hooks for these web servers will end up needing significant attention – and the answers are still not readily apparent.

Earlier I mentioned how easily WordPress-provided apps break posts authored in Gutenberg, third party apps are in even worse territory from desktop-based editors to mobile managers and social media connections.  The specialization of many sites using custom editors (such as Divi or Elementor) mean that these core changes with the upgrade to Gutenberg may result in a massive amount of work to rewrite the content of a web site made within these plugins continue to function in an upgrade WordPress installation.

Where does this leave us?

It has to “just work”.

In the end, it just has to work.  WordPress has a strong philosophy about the core that can be argued in favor or against this dramatic change.  We’re still in the beta/testing phase and Gutenberg should not be run on production sites – but the banners appearing during routine WordPress security upgrades aren’t clear enough to spell that out to the end users who may break their sites thinking that a core upgrade to the editor is more compatible than it is at this time.

This will continue to be my test site, and I may just have to avoid opening any of these posts in the app to prevent potential headaches in advance.

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