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June 22nd, 2011

WordPress: Not a Toy Anymore

About five years ago I was publishing a content site running on PostNuke when I inherited a political blog with a killer name and a decently designed theme from a friend who had lost interest. There was one little problem, however. The site was running on WordPress, a platform that didn’t impress me in the least.

In hindsight, this may have been partly due to the fact that WordPress made many tasks too easy. In those days, the concept of blogging was fairly new and I didn’t like bloggers, who I saw as amateurs who hadn’t paid their dues. Blogging platforms like WordPress made running a website too easy, I thought. I had learned to be proficient on PostNuke through lots of sweat, work and mistakes, and I thought this new breed of web writers/publishers should have to work, learn and sweat like I had. In other words, I’d become a cranky old fart opposed to change.


But it wasn’t all jealousy on my part, as WordPress had some real problems. For example, installing most plugins required copying and pasting code into the theme layout file, which was primitive even by the standards of the day. On the plus side, it was fully equipped for Web 2.0 and social networking, while the full-fledged CMSes I used were not. For me, however, the pluses didn’t outweigh the negatives. After I’d moved the site to my server, I decided to do away with WordPress and place it on one of the newer up-and-coming CMS platforms like Drupal or Joomla, as development seemed to have stalled at PostNuke.

That never happened as I quickly discovered I wasn’t interested enough in a political site to want to start testing, playing with and learning a new platform. I keep it on WordPress and all but abandoned it. Occasionally, incensed by something in the news, I’d dash off a quick diatribe, but mostly I let the site set around to wait to see if I ever developed a renewed interest in it.

That was the sum total of my experience with WordPress until a little over a year ago, when I decided to build this site to write about FOSS. In the years that had passed, I’d lost my disdain for bloggers and now wanted to be one. I wanted the new site to be easy to use and maintain and I didn’t want the distractions of working with a full fledged CMS. All I wanted to do was think and write, and the old version of WordPress with which I was familiar would fit the bill nicely in spite of its limitations.

So I downloaded and installed the latest and greatest version of WordPress, which at the time I think was at around 2.9. What a difference a few years had made. In this newer version the limitations were almost gone. The platform had evolved far beyond my expectations.

The back-end still looked something like the WordPress I knew, but the layout was greatly improved, much more intuitive with many new functions. Like the earlier versions, it was still lean and fast. Unlike earlier versions, it was no longer a lightweight toy. It could now stand-in as a full fledged CMS in most circumstances.

Back end functions were certainly easier to use. For example, when writing or editing a post it was much easier to switch away from the WYSIWYG processor to the simple HTML text editor that I prefer. Installing plugins was now a one click process with no copying and pasting code, and WordPress would even issue a warning if a plugin hadn’t been tested on the version of WordPress being used. Even better, there was a theme available that could be customized from a GUI without ever touching a line of code.

The upgrade cycle is pretty rapid at WordPress, perhaps a little too rapid for my liking. Right now, they’re up to release 3.1.3. Upgrades can be handled with a single click, which has worked flawlessly for me all but once, when the upgrade of a site I was developing failed. I won’t be using point-and-click to upgrade the platform again. A manual upgrade is simple, and much safer in the long run.

The plug-in repository contains plenty of developer features, like caching tools to greatly increase speed, lower bandwidth usage and server load, essential on busy sites. One cool plug-in serves up pages optimized for mobile devices when it detects a smart phone or pad. Because most of the plugins are developed by the user community and may not have been fully tested, caution is recommended. I look at the plugin’s user rating and then look at the project’s web site before deciding if to install.

There can be some problems with WordPress and it still has limitations, but so does every other CMS platform I’ve ever used. Do I think WordPress is the bomb? Let me put it this way: These days, the first thing I try to figure out about a new web site I’m going to build is, can it be done on WordPress. If it can, my job will be that much easier.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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