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December 6th, 2018.

The long-anticipated launch of WordPress 5 (aka Bebo) – the latest iteration of the world’s most prolific CMS – was (finally) publicly released with much social media fanfare. Several years in the making, this marked a big day for web developers and site managers everywhere, as this included the addition of Gutenberg, an entirely new way of handling site content in a block form, specifically: a huge change in how the “rubber meets the road” between content creator and content management software.

Gutenberg represents the largest change in WordPress and that change comes with no small amount of controversies. From immediate problems with currently built themes, older plugins to serious issues with accessibility, there is plenty to read about on WordPress’ new editor.

This attitude is, of course, compounded by Automattic’s (who “owns” and manages the code base for WordPress core) decision to push this generally unloved and definitely buggy update to the public.  So does this mean that WordPress did a bad thing? Not necessarily. Software does this all the time. That game your kid (or our COO) is into may very well be a “public beta”. So while Gutenberg’s full acceptance is still a few years away, the team at Automattic felt it was time to push Gutenberg into the public arena. There’s only so much you as a team can do in a closed-beta, and when you have as robust and unbelievably talented a community as we have in WordPress – the best way to innovate and integrate a given software product into the WordPress community at large (and therefore client websites) is to simply pick a date and push it. Which is exactly what the team at Automattic did, for better or for worse.

While being a good, and frankly much needed directional step in the evolution of WordPress, this release was far from perfect, so we at enilon, like everyone who hosts and manages WordPress websites, delayed updating this in a live environment.  We like to stay on top of these new advances in technology, but we do so even if it means sometimes we take a step back before we dive into it. Seeing what was happening with WordPress developers in around the world – and that it was happening to quite a few of them, gave us good reason to stick to our current methodologies and test everything prior to production.

Something something responsible web design.

Below are a few questions we asked, received, and answered regarding Gutenberg and WordPress 5 during our case study of the new content editor and how it would affect current and future projects.

First off, what exactly is Gutenberg?

Gutenberg is a new content (more on that later) editor that replaces the standard TinyMCE-esque content section used on all WordPress sites since WordPress 3. Okay, not exactly “new”, the Gutenberg editor has existed as a plug-in since July of 2017. Still, it’s “new” now in that it is being baked into the WordPress 5 update – so everyone is experiencing this new feature whether they like it or not. Also, this change in the editor itself represents a rather big leap from the classic editor we’ve grown up with, to an entirely new layout. With Gutenberg, this new layout demonstrates WordPress’ awareness of its need to be more than just a copy editor. With Gutenberg, it’s a full-on content block editor: essentially a fusion of widgets and custom fields with true in-line, real-time WYSIWYG. You can now drag and drop all manner of content (with new content types being added every day) and resize it dynamically on the page, all without needing to use advanced HTML/PHP or Javascript that some customized content had previously required. It’s actually pretty slick and expands the ability to build pages or sections of content with more customizable content right there in the editor.

Will upgrading to WordPress 5 break our websites?

Not at Enilon! At this time, we’re opting to not use Gutenberg on any current website. You can disable the Gutenberg editor by installing, of course, a plugin.  The Classic Editor Plugin keeps the current content section editor while simultaneously disabling Gutenberg  – essentially allowing you to benefit from the upgrades in WordPress 5 while retaining the functionality of the editor we know and (so far) love. Since our sites are not built using these new methodologies that Gutenberg brings to the table, the cost of implementation is too much at this point in time, i.e. the need to go through and change everything over to Gutenberg-powered content.

Won’t our clients miss out on not using Gutenberg?

To be honest, they won’t know a difference. Gutenberg is the wave of the future, but we’re still on the bleeding edge. If anyone really wants to play with Gutenberg at this point in time, they can do so on a test server (which we can happily set up for just that purpose – more on that later as well).

So, if we aren’t using Gutenberg on current sites, what about new sites?

We hope that as Gutenberg’s development continues, we will have the opportunity to employ these advanced editor functions on upcoming projects. There are some exciting applications that we see being made possible (and far easier to deploy) thanks to WordPress’ new direction on content creation. While we see no reason to think Gutenberg will fail, however, we need to be cautiously optimistic, as any WordPress developer should be. Trust us, you want us to err on the side of caution when it comes to your website. You start to play fast and loose with updates and feature changes, and that’s how websites (and their associated plugins) get broken. So then, at this time, we believe it’s too early to start implementing Gutenberg in a live environment. Because there are these performance and accessibility issues with Gutenberg that are still being addressed with many plugin authors still trying to adapt their plugins to Gutenberg, we’re not going to be the first to take that beach. As was mentioned before, technology like this often needs to be released to the public in order to see it improve at scale. However large Automattic’s internal dev team is, it pales in comparison to the millions of WordPress users out there who are only too happy to work with Gutenberg and report bugs and fixes for the greater good of the WordPress community. WordPress knows this, which is why they released it when they did (to mixed reviews). They estimate it could be 2021 before Gutenberg takes over as the default editor of choice on the majority of WordPress sites. So again, we feel that we don’t need to include it in our current site building methodology for some time – likely sometime in the next year or two.

Should we be talking to clients about Gutenberg?

While a new and big change for WordPress, Gutenberg doesn’t overhaul the features that WordPress brings to the table, it only enhances them. It’s not necessarily a selling point at this time. At least not on the level of say, using WooCommerce for your e-commerce WordPress solution. For the time being, the conversation should be around what Gutenberg brings to the future table in terms of potential, and the inherent hazards of employing it now – and that your WordPress developers are keenly aware of both.

Okay, I read about Gutenberg and there are some pretty cool things it can do. Are you sure we shouldn’t be using it today?

At this time, absolutely sure. We (the enilon development team) love new technology, but we also must be realistic about how we use it. So concerning our clients, budgets, time, and team abilities, all of these things must be considered when making a decision to use a new piece of technology. Some new technologies are easier than others to bring onboard and for Gutenberg, we still have the option of using it or not, until such a time as it reaches a better level of support, development, stability, and some semblance of universal compatibility with the plugins we rely on every day to make our WordPress sites function. We feel confident that we’ll have to convert eventually, but we need a lot of things ironed out before we can do that.

What needs to be done to update to WordPress 5?

All sites need to have the Classic Editor Plugin installed. After this is installed, you can then upgrade to WordPress 5. The time to update and deploy the WordPress 5 update is the same as it normally would be for any other WordPress version update, and due to the number of things changing in the background, it is recommended that the site is upgraded and checked thoroughly on a test server prior to deployment to a live production environment.

WordPress is still one of the easiest, most universal, and adaptable CMS out there.  But that universality and uber-helpful developer community doesn’t mean that WordPress is without its pitfalls. Like any piece of software, there are iterations and testing cycles that need to happen before it can be signed off as vetted, as ready for “the wild”. We know Gutenberg will get there, but we also know that it isn’t there just yet – and you don’t want your single greatest piece of marketing – your website – to be hobbled, or worse, taken offline, by an as-yet-fully-functional upgrade.

If you’re interested in maximizing the potential of your existing WordPress site, or you’re considering several CMS options and would like to know more about what WordPress+Enilon can do for your content, your organization, and ultimately your growth – drop us a line, we’re always listening.