WordPress Gutenberg will be the end of WordPress

Updated: September 8, 2018

WordPress is the most popular Content Management System (CMS) and blogging platform in the world. There are a lot of good reasons for that. It is accessible, simple and intuitive to use, and highly flexible, with a bewildering range of professional plugins and themes. Over the years, it has asserted itself as the dominant choice for those looking to create dynamic, responsive websites. I am a happy user, too. I've been using it myself since 2012, on my book writing blog. Unfortunately, all this goodness is poised to go down the drain.

WordPress 5.0, the next major release, is going to feature a revised UI (the backend) using a framework called Gutenberg. This new UI looks like it's going to take away all the good things that made WordPress so cool, and destroy the beautiful elegance, efficiency and simplicity with something that feels like an abstract, touch-optimized experiment. Let's discuss.

Teaser

More about Gutenberg

There is a lot that can be said about Gutenberg. But I'm not going to. There's no need to repeat what has already been said. The WordPress team has released the upcoming interface as a plugin, to allow for early testing and feedback. As of late August 2018, when I wrote this article, there were more than 1,000 reviews for the plugin, a good two thirds negative, giving this plugin a rather abysmal 2.3/5.0 rating. That alone speaks volumes. Regardless of the content, would you actually use/install a plugin with a sub-3 rating?

Gutenberg reviews

The theme of the negative (one and two star) reviews is consistent: Gutenberg is not intuitive, it breaks a beautiful and balanced design, it's slow, it's inefficient, it introduces extra mouse clicks. Now, this got me thinking, so I decided to test. I never judge anything without personal experience. So I installed the plugin, and checked out what it does.

Old editor (TinyMCE)

Simple, elegant, designed for the desktop. It looks like any text editor, text processor and/or word processor out there. You write, and you have a few dozen shortcuts for the most commonly used functions. Adding images and styles is a simple thing. This is the beauty of WordPress. Perfection.

TinyMCE

Enter Gutenberg

This is a product designed for the world of touch. Like every single product that is designed for touch, it is simplistic, complicated and adds too many mouse clicks (or taps) when used on the desktop. There is not a single touch-based application that works well on the desktop, or even just slightly better than any which classic counterpart in the same category. We've seen this with Windows 8/10 and Modern apps.

Gutenberg uses the concept of blocks (which do not conform to any Web language style or syntax). You can move blocks around (this might appeal to touch users without easy select & copy functionality). On the desktop, this is a non-intuitive nuisance that adds mouse clicks.

New interface

You waste time doing things. You want to add a featured image? First you need to hit the down arrow before you can upload. The old editor requires a single mouse click. Want to set tags? First you need to expand then use them. More waste. Not only that, you don't immediately see your most commonly used tags like in the old editor.

You want to add an image below a paragraph of text? More unnecessary mouse clicks. Previously, you just hit the Add Media button, and done. Now, you first need to click the + button and then choose the type of block you want to add. At the very least you have 2x administrative work than you had before.

Extra mouse clicks

This is a touch-optimized UI - and its fails on the desktop. It does not conform to any HTML/CSS logic, it's inefficient on the desktop, and it destroys the foundation of WordPress - which is fast, elegant simplicity.

And that is all that I'm going to say about this interface. The fact it adds work - increases the amount of mouse clicks one must execute to perform basic tasks, like adding an image, is the proof of the conceptual and design failure. There are many, many other technical problems, but you can read the thousand odd reviews for that.

Unless this is radically changed, this is going to utterly destroy WordPress.

Luckily, there is a cure (a temporary one)

If you don't want Gutenberg, you can install a compatibility plugin called Classic Editor that disables the new interface, and you can continue working just like before. This plugin has more than 200,000 active installations with a near perfect 5.0 score. There are several other, similar plugins that offer the old functionality.

But all of this feels like a deja vu. It's all too familiar. Yes, we've seen this with Firefox!

Stepping aside for a moment, Mozilla decided to "revamp" Firefox (for no good reason), it introduced Australis, which was a horrible ergonomic change, and finally gave us Firefox 57, which essentially undid Australis, and gave Firefox users a nice and effective UI once more. In a way, all the aesthetic saber rattling around Australis amounted to nothing. Back to the starting point, with a lot of wasted energy and disappointment in between.

For a brief while, we also had the Classic Theme Restorer, which gave us the old Firefox looks until Quantum axed thousands of valuable add-ons, the golden essence and power of Firefox, and introduced a new and not so golden age for Mozilla. Well, Firefox still remains the least annoying browser out there, but it's a far cry from love and enthusiasm that it once evoked. Beyond the scope of this article, and the whole plugins story is a more complicated one, but it ties in nicely into WordPress and Gutenberg. The message is the same. A similar pattern has emerged here.

So we have a reprieve. But it might not last. The WordPress team mentions this Classic Editor as a measure to continue working as before, for those who are not yet ready to switch. Which probably means that there will come a point when Gutenberg becomes a must. But for me, and I guess for thousands of serious Web designers out there (not that I call myself one), there's no such thing as an uncertain future state where Gutenberg in its current guise might become acceptable. For me, there will never be a time to switch.

Unholy Crusade against the desktop

Ever since mobile (touch) became the prevalent consumer platform, there's been a lot of focus on developing mobile solutions. This is fine. Except these mobile solutions are also pushed onto the desktop, where they utterly fail. Touch software does not work on the desktop. It just does not.

Moreover, there's a bigger problem here. While most of the content is consumed on the mobile, most of the content is created on the desktop. It makes sense. The desktop is an infinitely superior platform for writing and image processing. The full keyboard + mouse combo and the multi-application usability beat all and any touch solution.

I do not consider social media "updates" content. I consider content to be meaningful articles that provide new and unique information, of which there is less and less every day. I am extremely confident than the vast majority of actually valuable articles and posts are made using the classic desktop formula. Just imagine writing 500 words on a keyboard versus touch.

WordPress Gutenberg seems to fall into the touch category. It is a product that seems optimized for mobile, but it has no place on the desktop. And if you wonder whether this is a good idea, just remember Windows 8. So much effort, money, intellect, work, and marketing was invested in promoting Windows 8 as the new and radical user interface. Desktop was going to be become "just an app" on the Start Screen. This design introduced the same problem like Gutenberg - 2x as many mouse clicks as before.

Fast forward a couple of years, Windows 8 is a sour memory. Everyone wants to pretend that it never happened. Windows 10 brought back the classic menu layout, because there is ancient, proven logic to that arrangement. It is not luck or coincidence or hype or trend. It's human natural evolution. It's thermodynamics.

You cannot fight against the natural order of things. I've explained this in my Windows Blue conspiracy article. Touch can NEVER replace the desktop because it is a less optimized form of content creation. It is a one-dimensional medium whereas keyboard+mouse (and the separate screen) is a two-dimensional medium. Writing on a keyboard is faster than touch. Desktop screens allow for a large number of items to be displayed due to the use of a high-precision pointer, minimizing hierarchy depth, and increasing situational awareness and overall work efficiency. These are given. Fighting against them leads to a sub-optimal product.

Why is this happening?

So, you may ask yourself, why is the WordPress team so keen on shooting itself in the foot? The answer is, competition from mobile players and social media. This is only a guess of course, but since I'm probably the smartest person in the observable universe and beyond, my hypothesis should make you perk up your ears - or rather, your eyes - and read on.

On social media - Instagram and Pintrest in particular - it is very easy to create short, blog-like entries. You post a line or three of text, add an inspirational image, and Bob's your uncle. However, on non-desktop form factor, doing something similar is NOT an easy task for WordPress users.

WordPress was created in the era of the desktop. It looks and feels desktop. While it did revolutionize the Web, and the whole responsive site thingie is almost inseparable from WordPress, the administrative backend used for content creation is desktop-optimized. It is not suitable for use on tablet and phone.

Gutenberg is most likely an almost knee-jerk response to the threat of the mobile adversaries and a few other competitors that offer simplified backend interfaces. However, the paradox in this solution is that it alienates almost its entire user base of mostly diehard professionals who create websites, and in their place, it attracts the rabble of casual "bloggers" who just wanna show the world how inspired and empowered they are.

Solving a problem that does not exist

This is a big part of the issue at hand. Gutenberg fixes what needed no fixing. WordPress 4.X is as perfect as it gets in terms of actual usability. It works well, it offers efficiency and flexibility. Changing this equation ruins the foundation of writing.

The concept of distraction-free writing is absolute nonsense. A buzzphrase. First, if you are somehow distracted by a static toolbar that has a few shortcuts to font and paragraph styling, you shouldn't write. Second, Gutenberg is the exact opposite of distraction-free. The fact you have to interact with the blocks actually harms the writing flow. It does not improve it in any way.

I write about 5,000-10,000 words of text every day. Every. Single. Day. I can proudly say that I produce more written content than most people out there. This volume of words is divided among various articles, technical books, fiction books, short stories. Every. Single. Day. I have explored every conceivable medium and technology for writing. Trust me when I say I have optimized the actual process of translating thoughts into written sentences.

I can say, with decades of writing confidence, the use of technologies like text editors, WYSIWYG editors, text processors (LateX and LyX), word processors, HTML composers, Web-based design and writing tools, and everything else out there, I can say that WordPress 4.X is extremely friendly. It offers a very good balance between writing productivity and styling assistance. It does the latter in the correct way, with reasonable emphasis on separation between content and style.

Gutenberg does not do that. It introduces inline CSS styling and comments that do not conform to Web standards. It forces you to worry about how things should LOOK rather than focus on writing. It destroys the separation between content and style. Back to the 90s Internet.

Enabling idiots one block at a time

WordPress is a top-notch professional product. And it must remain such. The concept of blocks, galleries and similar nonsense may appeal to clueless phone users, who will then blithely swipe this and that block of whatever here, add a drop-cap, use a colored background and similar nonsense.

This is a regression. A horrible regression to the 1999 era of GeoCites and alike, when people cobbled websites like they were some post-apocalyptic scavengers in a color-induced Mad Max nightmare. Gutenberg breaks the strict rigor and separation of style and content, and it makes the professional work of designing a website into a joke.

Making sites is not an easy thing. Even my humble and straightforward writing blog took a lot of time polishing and tweaking - finding the right theme, making subtle CSS changes, adding blocks of HTML and custom code. Hours and hours of time invested in trying to make a presentable blog. More than a dozen plugins, and it's just for a simple writing blog. If you're interested, this is the list of classes and styles that I had to either add or modify to get the result that I wanted (in addition to the theme CSS):

h1, .h1, h2, .h2, h3, .h3 { margin-bottom: 20px !important; margin-top: 30px !important; }

.primary-menu li a { font-weight: bold !important; }

.site-title::after { width: 65% !important; }

.entry-meta::after { width: 65% !important; display: inline-block !important; }

.entry-content a { text-decoration: underline !important; }

.entry-content a.more-link { text-decoration: none !important; display: none; }

.entry-content .wp-caption-text { text-align: left; }

.entry-content figure { display:inline; }

.entry-content blockquote { margin-left: 0em !important; border-left: 5px solid #de7416 !important; padding: 1.3em !important; padding-right: 1.5em !important; }

.byline { margin-left: 7px; }

.read-more a { text-decoration: none !important; }

.btn-default { border: 1px solid #de7416; }

.widget ul { padding-left: 0em; }

.widget-title::after { width: 100px !important; height: 2px !important; }

.post-comments { padding: 2.5em; font-size: 10pt; line-height: 250%; }

.booklist { float: left; width: 48% !important; margin-right: 10px; padding-right: 10px; }

.imgborder { border: 1px solid #de7416 !important; padding: 7px !important; }

@media only screen and (max-width: 511px) { .booklist { float: none; width: 100% !important; }}

@media only screen and (max-width: 767px) { .entry-content img { display: block; margin: auto; }}

@media only screen and (min-width: 767px) { .read-more { text-align: left; }}

@media only screen and (min-width: 767px) { .entry-title { text-align: left; }}

@media only screen and (min-width: 767px) { .entry-meta { text-align: left; }}

On top of that, I also edited a few PHP files, introduced security hardening, created my own custom htaccess files, had to sort out asynchronous loading of certain elements, and then some. Then, there's caching, page loading optimization, form factor optimization, privacy (like GDPR). All this requires technical understanding and patience. There are no shortcuts in this game. You cannot just put together a quick 'n' dirty site using blocks like some four-year-old and expect it to work, to look well, or to appeal to anyone but your inner child.

Gutenberg is going to scare away professionals - who expect and want to use a professional platform. This is the critical core of supreme intellectual property and experience that makes WordPress what it is today. If these people leave, WordPress will lose its professional edge. Maybe there is glamor and even money to be made from the casual touch user (money could be another motivation for this project), but in the end, in the long run, this will be meaningless noise.

What will happen when someone who has designed a thousand websites decides to move to a different CMS? What happens when someone asks for a recommendation on which blog platform to use? Again, going back to the Mozilla example, all and everything that Mozilla did with its UI changes was to alienate the hard core of its loyal followers. If you asked me in 2010, which browser I'd recommend, it would be Firefox, with all my heart and passion. Today, if you ask me, it's going to be a non-committal answer (they're all the same), although Firefox is, in the end, the least bad option, still. Likewise, if you ask me which CMS to use, I'll say WordPress, through and through. But come Gutenberg? A year or two from now? I'm not sure.

This is how you bleed loyalty and lose customers.

More reading

Some other interesting reviews on this topic:

Gutenberg Editor Review: Please Don't Include This in WordPress Core

7 Reasons to Not Switch to the Gutenberg WordPress Editor

Conclusion

The problem with Gutenberg can be solved easily. Maybe the project has gone down the road too far to stop or cancel, and altering it into a presentable state will take years (agile nonsense), but then, the elegant and seamless solution is to offer it as a plugin. Not make it as a core product and offer the classic editor as a plugin. Pop a notification to new users, give them a choice to try the mobile-friendly option, leave the professionals alone. This way, no harm done, and everyone wins.

Or even better - allow for a full level of customization, and start with the professional layout and then allow trimming down if someone is feeling distracted. Yes, that means a bigger code base, but that's the ONLY way to retain old users and win new users. I would really hate to see WordPress wither, but hey, their money, their decisions. And as a customer, I also get to choose. I am not a child, and I want to use professional products. Today, WordPress is a professional product. Tomorrow? Unknown. If there ever comes a time when Gutenberg becomes a mandatory change with no alternative, I will migrate my site to a different platform. And thus ended this sad article.

Cheers.

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