Automattic updated its WordPress.com Business planoffering today to support custom plugins and themes, further obfuscating the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org for the casual user and cannibalizing both the upper- and lower-end of the managed WordPress hosting space in a single bound. Though the WordPress managed hosting space is already quite saturated, with names like Dreamhost and Bluehost at the bottom end, Pressable and WPEngine in the middle, Page.ly and Pantheon as you continue, and WordPress.com VIP at the top end, the WordPress.com Business Plan’s pricing structure serves to undermine many of these offerings. At less than $25 per month, it’s quite affordable, too.
Some Background: The WordPress.com Wall
WordPress.com has long been the easiest way to create a new WordPress site, particularly for non-technical users. A site with a `.wordpress.com` web address has always been free, and an offering very much in line with the needs of the typical personal blogger or small business (no ads, custom domain, modest customization via CSS) has always been available for less than $9 per month.
Trouble has always arisen when a user wants to move beyond a “simple publishing website”. Previously, WordPress.com supported only the default functionality in WordPress, and features added by an Automattic offering called Jetpack, which were mostly administrative or related to social sharing. If you wanted to do anything more involved (from integrating with another comment system, like Disqus; to running a storefront; to designing a custom theme or using one outside of WordPress.com’s theme repository), you’d need to moved to one of the many managed WordPress hosts available. While that process isn’t difficult for a technically-oriented user or a developer, it’s often prohibitive for less-technical users. For self-serve business owners or personal “power users” on a budget, that’s a big deal.
That’s changing today. WordPress.com Business now supports uploading themes outside of WordPress.com’s theme repository, and uploading custom plugin code. While the offering doesn’t seem to support a handful of features that are common amongst WordPress managed hosts (a staging environment, SFTP access), I’ve been told that additional features will be rolled out over the coming weeks.
Dot Com vs. Dot Org
Clearly articulating the difference between WordPress.org (the WordPress software product) and WordPress.com (a service that provides hosted WordPress, or WordPress in a software-as-a-service model) has always been difficult, particularly to those who aren’t familiar with the concept of open-source software. For many years, the most effective explanation has originated in the differences in functionality. WordPress.org provided the software, WordPress.com enabled you to use the software as it was out of the box, and other hosting providers enabled you to use the WordPress software’s expansive ecosystem of plugins and themes.
With the introduction of the new WordPress.com Business Plan, it’s now wholly possible for a user to receive the entire “WordPress experience”, including its sometimes-notorious plugin- and theme-repository, without ever being aware of the difference. While some might argue that this is a good thing for the broader WordPress ecosystem, it risks obscuring — or even totally hiding — those who choose to contribute to the WordPress ecosystem out of the WordPress theme and plugin repositories, or companies within the WordPress space that ideologically different from Automattic. This, effectively, enables Automattic to launch a product competitive to any major premium WordPress plugin (Easy Digital Downloads, for example), market it using the “WordPress” name, and prioritize it over an independent offering to users whom may not know that alternatives exist. That’s bad.
Cannibalizing The Head and the Feet
With the exception of high-end enterprise clients, for whom uptime guarantees and security restrictions dominate platform decisions, selecting a managed WordPress host has long been a calculus of determine the least expensive host that can accommodate the number of page views one expects their website to receive. For editorially-focused sites, this can be a risky endeavor — one popular post on a channel like Facebook or reddit, while otherwise a sign of success, can force one to perform a costly hosting plan update at a moment’s notice.
WordPress.com’s Business Plan is unique in what it lacks: hard-and-fast restrictions on the number of page views a single site can receive. This means that, in theory, a popular-yet-technically-simple website with a large hosting bill elsewhere (due to traffic levels) could migrate to the WordPress.com Business Plan, pay $25 per month, and potentially save _thousands_ of dollars. WordPress.com’s economy of scale (it serves hundreds of millions of impressions per day) nearly guarantees that no other managed host can afford to expose themselves to a similar structure at that price point.
While those already on mid-marketing hosting providers are unlikely to find an immediate need to switch, this has interesting implications in two spaces: the top-end, premium portion of the market, and the lower-end “free” consumer portion.
While $25 per month is not a small investment, it’s not unreasonable to ask of someone looking to generate revenue from their website, either through advertising or through sales of a service related to the website. The additional flexibility and “growth-proofing” of the WordPress.com Business Plan means that small website owners with large aspirations will be tempted to begin their digital journey on WordPress.com, upgrading to the Business Plan when needed, or simply beginning — and ending — there.
Of even greater interest is the top-end of the market: a premium space occupied partially by high-volume publishers and corporations with enterprise-geared service requirements. At present, these folks are often forced to select an enterprise-focused managed hosting plan that can come close to — or exceed — $1,000 per month. While WordPress.com doesn’t currently publish an uptime guarantee (part of a larger document known as an SLA), I expect that, upon private discussion, a non-trivial number of users currently utilizing premium-level WordPress hosts, including WordPress.com’s own WordPress.com VIP, will find the service history of WordPress.com (which is quite good) comforting enough to deploy to the new WordPress.com Business Plan.
Fairness in the Marketplace
Long-standing criticism within the WordPress community stems from WordPress.com’s use of the WordPress trademark. Automattic is quite aggressive in its defense of the WordPress trademark, which is actually owned by an “independent” nonprofit, The WordPress Foundation, and perpetually licensed, royalty free, for use on WordPress.com. In truth, both the WordPress Foundation and Automattic (creator of WordPress.com) are controlled by Matt Mullenweg, a co-founder of WordPress and the project’s “benevolent dictator”. Some have argued that this relationship enables Automattic (and thus Matt) to unfairly profit off of the popularity of the WordPress software and name.
While this topic has come up occasionally over the years, it often simmers down quickly as Automattic/WordPress.com previously occupied only the very low end of the market (through its free- and low-cost offerings on WordPress.com) and very high end of the market (through WordPress.com VIP). Now that Automattic has clearly taken aim at the broader portion of the market, some will find new issue in this arrangement.
This gets particularly complicated when considering Automattic’s (and WordPress’) relationship with existing third-party hosts like Bluehost and GoDaddy. WordPress.org currently lists a number of preferred hosting partners, and Automattic has worked with a variety of WordPress hosts, including Bluehost and GoDaddy, historically. Automattic had previously complicated this arrangement with its majority-acquisition of Pressable, a mid-market WordPress managed host, though it’s now become clear that Automattic very much sees itself as competing across the broader WordPress market.
A Good Thing for WordPress?
Within the WordPress community, there’s long been a notion that “more users on WordPress” is universally good. Until now, that’s been difficult to argue: an expansive ecosystem has developed over the last decade, and many now make their living off of WordPress.
Despite that, WordPress.com’s Business Plan now feels like it’s oriented towards cannibalizing users from elsewhere within that ecosystem — from sites that may have “grown up” and moved to another hosting provider to those that now may not know that the broader ecosystem even exists — which is objectively a step backwards for the WordPress community. While Automattic appears to have launched a solid product into the market at a competitive price-point, it owes it to the community (particularly in light of the Dot Com vs. Dot Org debate) to ensure that it continues its commitment to properly educating users on the breadth of the WordPress community. outside of the Automattic ecosystem.