Categories
VR WordPress

(Virtual) Hallway Track

One of the many takeaways I got from Matt Mullenweg’s Distributed podcast (a show about the future of work) was the importance of high fidelity communication.

Matt talks about the huge difference between written communication and voice chat. There’s another jump up from audio-only to video. Each step up in fidelity creates more bandwidth for communication.

You can get so much from someone’s tone of voice, their approach, etc. It’s really much higher bandwidth [than text].

Matt Mullenweg

It’s obvious, right? We all know that words lack tone and inflection. Voice lacks eye contact and gestures.

What about video? Video lacks group dynamics, and an ineffable quality of presence.

That’s why I’m so interested in the tech that creates the next leap in fidelity: Virtual Reality.

In September 2018 I did a fun experiment. I joined a Zoom call from VR. As a virtual avatar, in a virtual environment.

Joining a Zoom call from BigscreenVR. Pictured is the virtual selfie-camera which I used as a webcam, and the giant cinema screen where I projected the call.

Of course, this didn’t help improve fidelity, but I’ll never forget something that Brendan (top left) said: I can tell that it’s you just by the way you move your head and hands.

Brendan and I have spent a lot of time together in person – this wasn’t something obvious to other participants on the call. But it made me wonder, what would it be like for everyone on the call to be joining me in VR? Would we learn what it felt like to just be present with each other?

Since then, I’ve been involved in a bunch of VR-only meetings, and can attest that the fidelity of communication, while not quite as good as in-person, far outshines a video call.

Aside from a sense of presence, and aside from the dynamics of being able to move between conversations, being in VR also allows you to experience together.

For example, I have a weekly one-on-one with an old mate who I don’t otherwise get to see often. We hang out, chat about work, kids, tech, hobbies, all while floating through an abandoned space station or floating between rapids. Shooting zombies or shooting hoops. The crazy part is – those memories feel as real as the times we’ve spent together in person.


Recently I had to cancel a trip to Thailand because WordCamp Asia was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. At the time I was somewhat critical of the decision to cancel, but turns out I was wrong. Events all over the world are being cancelled. Travel to meet in person is going to be really hard in 2020.

What a good opportunity this could be, then, to start experimenting with meeting in VR? What if we had a WordCamp VR, or a WordPress VR Meetup?

While the main presentation or talk tracks are a big part of WordCamp attendance, my favourite part has always been the “Hallway Track” – meeting new faces, old friends, colleagues, competitors, contributors, and more. This is where VR works beautifully in place of traditional video, which doesn’t allow for side-chats, mingling, or multiple conversations at once.

Here’s me in a Mozilla Hubs room I made. You can create your own environments, complete with scrollable keynote presentation, video embeds, and Wapuus! In this open-roofed structure, there are even literal hallways!

The tools exist. I’ve seen conferences held in Altspace, Engage, Rumii and others. Even Bigscreen would make a great destination for a WordPress meetup. Maybe Mozilla Hubs, which is web-based and open source, would be a perfect cultural fit for a WordPress Event.


I’ve been involved in the VR space since 2017, and I really believe that now is the right time to start a virtual reality meetup for WordPress. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the idea.

And please, if you’re interested in helping out, let me know!

Categories
Film

Film Roundup: Jan 2020

I saw twelve films in January.

Little Women was my favourite, followed closely by The School of Rock (a classic). The 2019 adaptation of The Addams Family ranked worst.

On average, I rated the films 3.7 of 5 stars (74%), making me a harsher critic than Rotten Tomatoes by 6%.

I watched 8 of the films at home, 5 on Netflix, and 3 were torrented. I saw 4 at the cinema.

Date seenMovieYearDirectorStarsSource
2 JanuaryThe Gentlemen2020Guy Ritchie●●●◐○Cinema
4 JanuaryJumanji: Welcome to the Jungle2017Jake Kasdan●●●◐○Torrent
5 JanuaryJumanji: The Next Level2019Jake Kasdan●●●○○Cinema
6 JanuaryUncut Gems2019Safdie Brothers●●●●○Netflix
10 JanuaryLittle Women2019Greta Gerwig●●●●●Cinema
11 JanuaryMarriage Story2019Noah Baumbach●●●●◐Netflix
12 JanuaryStart Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker2019J. J. Abrams●●●◐○Cinema
16 JanuaryThe School of Rock2004Richard Linklater●●●●●Torrent
18 JanuaryThe Addams Family 2019Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon●◐○○○Torrent
22 JanuaryThe Irishman2019Martin Scorsese●●●●○Netflix
27 JanuaryModest Heroes2018Yonebayashi, Momose, & Yamashita●●●○○Netflix
29 JanuaryThe Two Popes2019Fernando Meirelles●●●●○Netflix
Categories
WordPress

GoDaddy’s Market Mistake

I know, I know. GoDaddy are one of the biggest, most successful web hosts in the history of web hosts. What makes Luke more of an expert than the brightest minds in WordPress?

Well, nothing really. But after talking strategy with friends at GoDaddy (some of their top WordPress people), I can’t shake the feeling that they’re miscalculating their marketing strategy.

To explain, there’s some groundwork to cover… here we go:

People spend a lot of time deciding where to buy.

Relationships

You’re much more likely to buy when you already know the seller. Research by Adobe suggests that existing customers are 9⨉ more likely to convert than a first-timer!

For long-term WordPress hosting commitments, brand precedence is a major factor. That’s why hosts are the leading sponsor of WordCamps – they need to get their logo in your brain.

In terms of engagement (and, of course, brand recognition), nobody captures the market as well as WordPress.com hosting. Automattic’s strategy is unique in this space:

  • Free to start
  • Easy upgrade paths (domains, theme marketplace, etc.)
  • Account required to use Jetpack and WooCommerce
  • Sign-in with WordPress.com to your blog and comments

Use-case

Every marketing campaign has a target. When making a purchasing decision, you look for the market messaging that most closely identifies your use-case.

Use-cases for WordPress hosting are organised along an axis of scalability. Low-traffic hobbyist websites are the cheapest, while enterprise requirements are most the expensive.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
HobbySmall BusinessAgencyEnterprise

We can classify which of these audience each WordPress host targets with some simple analysis of the copywriting used on their landing pages.

For example, GoDaddy’s messaging is clearly targeted at the small business DIY website market:

Got stuff to sell? No problem.

The retail pitch.

Your hosting plan is set up with WordPress installed and ready.

Removing barriers for non-technical folks.

Our WordPress search engine optimization (SEO) plugin walks through your pages and automatically handles your basic SEO needs.

Just in case you didn’t know what SEO stands for.

While WP Engine is targeted at agencies:

We offer the best WordPress hosting and developer experience on a proven, reliable architecture that delivers unparalleled speed, scalability, and security for your sites.

Notice how “sites” is plural?

We empower developers with the Genesis theme framework, dev/stage/prod environments on every site, Git and SFTP connections, automated backups, and WordPress core updates.

Definitely not for beginners.

If we look at all major hosts through this lens, we get a table that looks something like this¹:

Hobby / DIYAgencyEnterprise
WordPress.com
GoDaddy
Dreamhost
Bluehost
WP Engine
Flywheel
Liquid Web
Siteground
WP.com VIP
Pantheon
DIY Cloud

Relationship + Use-case

Since we’re thinking about WordPress hosts along two different axis, let’s overlay them. Who doesn’t love a good quad chart?

The goal is to move out of the bottom half, and establish ongoing relationships with your customers.

Ecosystem Strategy

In order to move on up, WP Engine and GoDaddy are building a product ecosystem. WP Engine owns Genesis, which moves them into the “existing relationship” quadrant for Genesis users. GoDaddy own CoBlocks – same deal.

Now that we’ve got this framework to work with, we come to the main point of this post…

GoDaddy’s Gaffe

Problem #1: GoDaddy’s product ecosystem strategy doesn’t create repeat business within their market.

GoDaddy’s ecosystem products (right now) consist of:

These are all very compelling products for their target market: small business owners who want to DIY their website. Check one for Use-case column ✔️.

Unfortunately, the DIY website market don’t typically keep coming back for more. I mean, ask any freelancer employed to fix or upgrade this style of website – the client often doesn’t even remember which host they chose.

Compare with WP Engine – Local, Genesis, and Atomic blocks are all agency focused. Check one for Use-case ✔️. Also, agencies will keep coming back for more. Their products establish ongoing relationships. Check two ✔️✔️.

Problem #2: The market is way too crowded.

When you target non-technical people who want to DIY their own website, you’re competing with the likes of:

  • WordPress.com
  • Squarespace
  • Shopify
  • Facebook

That’s quite the contest in the top-left corner. GoDaddy are big enough to compete at this scale, but it’s got to be tough going toe-to-toe with some of the most successful brands in the world.

Summary

There’s a market for small business hosts – no doubt.

Compared to an agency focused strategy, finding a regular stream of repeat business, plus clear competitive differentiation – that’s going to be really hard.


1. Of course, there’s always a little overlap. Liquid Web would be happy to host your retail eCommerce store, and WP Engine provides enterprise grade solutions.

Categories
WordPress

Block-Business

This post is a response to a question recently asked by WP Tavern: Can the Block Directory and Business Interests Coexist?


When you stop to think about it, the WordPress Plugin and Theme ecosystem is a shining example of the Free & Open Source Software ideology working sustainably.

Take a completely open source project, and extend it with purely open source plugins. Keep it up for 16 years, until you power over a third of the internet, with no signs of stopping.

It seems outrageous, but that’s what WordPress has done!

The WordPress ecosystem is a perfect answer to skepticism from die-hard capitalists – it really is possible to build a business on non-proprietary, freely licensed, shared knowledge.

Of course, this doesn’t work without some private enterprise – there’s got to be some money in it, somewhere, if it’s going to last. Here we meet the cast: Hosting, Premium Plugins, Premium Themes, and Marketplaces.

WordPress.org’s laissez-faire approach has, thus far, created an ecosystem perfectly balanced between free for accessibility, and premium for sustainability.

> Enter stage left: Blocks

This year, a new extension paradigm is being introduced to WordPress. We’ll soon meet the Block Directory, and we’ll install and manage Blocks in the same way as Plugins and Themes.

Put briefly, I’d like to propose a new type of WordPress plugin that provides blocks and nothing else: Single Block Plugins. These will be hosted in a separate Block Directory section of the Plugin Directory.

Alex Shiels – The Block Directory, and a new type of plugin

It’s going to look something like this:

Mel Choyce-Dwan – Block Directory in WP-Admin: V1

This looks amazing. Especially the “grouping” of blocks below the parent block library. Imagine this on the Plugins screen, for all your WooCommerce extensions!

Since Blocks are basically just Plugins, there shouldn’t be any reason we couldn’t build a Block business in the same way as our Plugin Businesses, right?

Wrong. 😕

> Cue scary music
> Cue fog machine
> Enter: The Block Directory Guidelines

In no uncertain terms, the Block Directory forbids monetising Blocks. From the Guidelines:

5. Block Plugins must not require payment or a paid account to function.

This includes payment for premium features. You may use the donation link feature.

8. Must not promote other blocks, plugins, or themes.

Block Plugins are blocks. They must not include advertisements, prompts, or promotional messages.

Ouch.

Although I’m sure a few excited developers will create some great blocks just for kicks, without any long-term support model, these efforts are bound to be short-lived, unsupported, and unsustainable.

5 years from now the Block Directory will be full of blocks that haven’t been updated in the last 4 years.

Scene: Luke Has An Idea

> Spotlight centre stage

Instead of completely removing any monetisation opportunities, we could create a user experience which anticipates which Blocks are free of ads and up-sells, and which aren’t.

We could allow users to filter out plugins with strings attached, so that when an advertising fiasco like this happens, it was (in a way) consented to.

Apple’s App Store does this with In-App Purchases:

Jonathan Wold and I came up with this idea during an episode of Crossword. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

So I put together a few mockups. Concepts of how this might look in the Plugin and Block Directory. I’ve taken a few different approaches – which do you think works best?

The “Contains Ads” text is right below the Install button, can’t miss it.
Some plugins require an account with a third-party service.
Here the “Sign-In Required” text is shown below More Details – this makes it more informational, implying less of a “warning” before install.
Alternatively, we could move the text to the bottom section. This area shows information helpful for deciding between a number of different options.
Rather than denote “Ads” or “Sign-In”, we could show a badge which references the plugin’s monetisation model, if it has one. Freemium, Premium, or Paid Service.

The language here is a bit tricky. I’m not 100% happy with the words I chose, but I’m confident we can figure that out.

We can apply the same thinking to the Block Directory:

These Block Directory designs are still being iterated on, but I love how simple and clear they are. This adds just one more element into the mix.

Taking this approach would give users a better experience with Blocks and Plugins, and contribute to a more vibrant and sustainable Block Directory.

It might even pave the way to a future where WordPress.org handles payments for premium extensions natively!

> Audience cheers
> Ensemble bows

The End

Categories
WordPress

An Ecosystem Play

The most common question I hear from agencies and freelancers is “where do I start”? They’re ready to dive-in and build Gutenberg-first themes, but there’s no clear starter theme to get them going.

What does a Gutenberg-first theme even look like?

Getting Started

Once upon a time, we could use starter themes like Underscores to kickstart a new site build – but most of these themes haven’t seen any updates for a long time. Not counting community PRs:

Notice a trend here? Starter themes seem to have stopped development around the start of 2019 – at the exact time that Gutenberg was released (December 2018).

Because of the new block paradigm, the future of themes in WordPress is ambiguous and uncertain, and that’s causing foundational theme developers to put on the breaks.

When Powers Combine

An exception to this trend is the Genesis Framework by StudioPress.

StudioPress was acquired by WP Engine in June 2018, just a few months before they acquired Atomic Blocks. Their approach to Gutenberg-first themes is to build theme support for all the blocks in the Atomic library natively, with Genesis.

This is an ecosystem play: Hosting + Base Theme + Block Library. You can create a build modern, fully-featured WordPress site with the combined power of:

WP Engine + Genesis + Atomic

It’s not just WP Engine who has adopted this strategy. GoDaddy have done exactly the same thing. In April 2019, GoDaddy acquired ThemeBeans, including their CoBlocks plugin. Rich Tabor (a recent guest on the Crossword podcast) started work almost immediately on a new theme called Go.

This is exactly the same ecosystem play:

GoDaddy + Go + CoBlocks

AirPods work best with an iPhone, and an iPhone works best with a Mac. In the same way, if you build with Genesis, you’ll also want to host with WP Engine, and use Atomic Blocks.

We start to see something that looks a bit like this:

HostingThemeBlocks
WP EngineGenesisAtomic Blocks
GoDaddyGoCoBlocks

Local Development

For any theme build, the first step is almost always getting a local development environment up and running. There are a few options out there (Vagrant, DesktopServer, XAMPP), but the most widely-used solution (by far) is Local by Flywheel

… which was acquired by WP Engine in June 2019.

Of course, this ties back into ecosystem thinking – if I use Local, I’m much more likely to host with Flywheel. It also introduces us to a very important part of building ecosystems: Integration.

Integration

Integration maximises the likelihood of success for new products in the ecosystem, leading to more and more lock-in effect. Our table is starting to look more like:

Since GoDaddy’s target audience is more small-business focused (not really the developer type), I don’t think we’re likely to see GoDaddy exploring local development environments.

Since WP Engine have more of a focus on agencies and freelancers, you can see that they’ve established some very strong beachheads.

As an agency, buying-in to the WP Engine ecosystem is an easy decision, since there are multiple points of integration. On the other hand, if you just want to build a site without any development experience, GoDaddy makes it easy with Go + CoBlocks.

If you’re SiteGround, Kinsta, Pagely, or Dreamhost, you’ve got to start thinking in terms of ecosystems and integrations, or you’ll be left behind.

The Weakest Link

Interestingly, the poorest user experience for both WP Engine and GoDaddy is their core offering – their managed hosting. In both cases, managing your WordPress sites is clunky and difficult.

Flywheel’s management interface is the total opposite – a genuine delight to use. If WP Engine can learn a UX lesson or two from their friends at Flywheel, they’ll have a killer combo.

Or better yet, bring Genesis and Atomic Block to Flywheel customers!

A Consolidated Web?

The thing about ecosystems is that they create sudo-monopolies. Does Apple have a monopoly on computers? No, but they have a monopoly on MacOS – and if you’ve invested into that, it’s very hard to escape.

It’s simply not possible to compete with integrated ecosystems in the long-term. I feel safe in predicting that WordPress hosting providers will consolidate over the next 5 years, to the point where there are really only 3 or 4 options, each with its unique set of products and services.²

What does this mean for the open web?

Is WordPress still distributed if it’s primarily hosted by just four different providers?

Yes – it is. When we talk about an open web being distributed, there are two aspects that matter:

  • The URL layer – what visitors see in the address bar
  • The CMS layer – portable and non-proprietary software

WordPress sites can still be built in weird and wonderful ways, and exist outside of a centralised domain, even if they’re all hosted in the same place.


1. An interesting obstacle to keep an eye on is block-based themes. The entire concept of a theme in WordPress will experience some major disruption in 2020, which could potentially upset Genesis and Go (though Go seems better positioned for agility here).

2. Not discussed in this article is Automattic, who could easily make a Managed WordPress play. In the case of WordPress.com, there’s a tight integration between the “Management Dashboard”, and the WordPress installation itself. Add to that Products like Calypso or WooCommerce, and you’ve got an easy entry into the WordPress ecosystem market.