The State of WordPress Plugin Development


Seeing all the fun plugins you guys posted to the site today has reminded me of a topic that I’ve both seen published on other sites as of late and been pondering myself lately – the authors.  I’ve co-created a plugin, and it’s currently residing well in the plugin repository, but it hasn’t been all fun and games.  I’ve been very lucky on this point, but here is the typical cycle of a plugin developer:

  • write plugin – gets published in repository
  • users need help – write documentation for plugin and post
  • get email asking “can you add xyz features to the plugin”
  • get email asking “can plugin do this simple feature that’s documented in the documentation”
  • reply to both emails saying you will when you get time
  • get nasty email back from first person berating developer for not including it the first time and being lazy on updates
  • get review on user’s blog – user praises plugin for changing his/her life.
  • plugin is downloaded more because of review
  • emails
  • emails
  • emails

And so the cycle goes (at least, somewhat like that).  So, what’s wrong with this picture?

I can give you three things:

  1. Users think that because a plugin is released that it’s their right to have free help for it outside of the documentation
  2. At this point the developer has put many hours of labor and love into the plugin, and all he’s gotten aside from a nice review is hours of answering support emails and.
  3. User has received 0 tangible thanks for his work other than a few nice words – which do help, but don’t put food on the table.

Many of the plugin authors accept donations, but that doesn’t equal out to much. 

So, what happens next? Plugin authors get discouraged and stop updating their plugins, and it stagnates – we keep using plugins that haven’t been updated in God-knows-how-long and sites stagnate in that department.  Heck, I don’t think anyone would have even known Twitter Tools had competitors until it stopped working because of an API change.  Still, they stop updating, the plugin stagnates, and the community suffers a (small) blow.

But is it really that bad?

From an interview with Alex King (four years ago – still valid today):

Is it possible to make a living doing plugin work for WordPress? Is that something you have considered?
It’s definitely possible to make a living doing custom WordPress plugin and web development, but I don’t think it’s possible to make a living just building plugins and asking for donations.

Do you feel that users are ungrateful for your work?
Not really ungrateful, no, but I definitely think that some are blissfully ignorant. I imagine most folks don’t have an appropriate idea of the amount of work that actually does go into the things they can then get for free.

I definitely don’t like the attitude of folks who feel they are owed something or can place demands on someone who is donating their time.

So, what should we do?

One article suggested that plugin authors release all of their plugins as “premium” plugins – even going so far as to suggest that doing so would make the quality better.  I’ve used both free and premium plugins – quality in some cases makes no difference between the two – I’ve seen awesome free ones, and crappy pay-to-use ones.  So that option is not feasible (for everyone, that is).

I’ve seen a few “premium plugin app stores” pop up recently too – stores that sell plugins at a cheap cost, but since their not in the repository (the only guaranteed safe place for plugins), there’s always a risk for obfuscated (hidden) malware.

Two suggestions

I have two ideas that as developers, designers, and users we can implement to give back to the plugin community.  There’s two types of people that read this site: users and developer/designers.  So, I’ll address both groups.  If you’re a developer, make a list of all of the plugins you use on a site.  Then, as you’re installing them for your client, make a donation to each author who’s plugin you used.  You can even include it into the client’s bill as an expense, simply to help support and make the plugin better.  Every plugin author gets $5 a site, and they can start focusing on making the plugins better, faster, and more feature-rich. 

As a user, it can be hard to justify paying large sums of money to every single plugin author at once.  So, do it in groups.  Every month, for the cost of a cup of coffee, you can donate something to one plugin developer that has made your life easier.  That way, the author knows his work is being appreciated, and can go on to better the plugin for you and any other users that gain from it.

In a nutshell

Plugin developers for WordPress are some of the brightest stars in the WordPress universe.  They power all of the third-party functionality that makes your blog special, stand out, and do pretty much whatever you want it to.  With the current system, however, we run the risk of plugins getting stale in an environment where changes are happening all around us.  Even a small donation to a plugin developer shows them how much you care (and buys them that next cup of coffee that may keep them awake at night to make the plugin even more awesome).

Author’s Side Note: As a business person, I try to look at things in a way that helps out all parties – both users and plugin authors.  So, to you other business people, legal experts, and non-profit managers, I have a question: would it be possible to create a foundation that’s sole purpose is to accept donations for plugin authors, and make them tax deductible?  It might create more incentive to donate if the user is getting something in return (yes, a bit selfish, but incentives work – just ask the guys who wrote Freakanomics!)