Matt Mullenweg: Open Source Needs Help from SaaS

WordPress JetPackLast week I was fortunate to go to Pressnomics for the first time. It was a really great conference that focused on business growth, particularly in WordPress.

The event caused some controversy for a quote on the last day. Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress was taking some questions from Josh Strebel, the host of Pressnomics.

Matt's company is Automattic and they make a plugin called Jetpack which provide 30+ services, all wrapped up in a single package. Some of those services are paid, some are free and several rely on the SaaS capabilities of WordPress.com.

Josh asked Matt whether Jetpack was a trojan horse for Automattic to sell even more paid services in the future. (link)

Matt replied that the purpose was very different, "In the absence of Jetpack, I believe WordPress would be declining". (link)

That caused a real shock in the audience and a lot of debate afterwards, in the room, on Twitter and on blogs. I think some attendees found it hard to imagine WordPress market share declining and even harder to imagine it being saved by a plugin like Jetpack.

photomatt pressnomics

Josh and Matt at Pressnomics. Thanks to Betsy Cohen for the photo.

There's a bigger story here about open source

The debate about Jetpack is interesting, but I want to talk about the bigger picture.

I think the importance of Jetpack is an indicator of the limitations of open source in 2015.

The Pressnomics sessions were not recorded, so the most accurate quotes I have for Matt are from Twitter. Here's some of what he said:

  • "Naked WordPress (without plugins) is not competitive to Wix, Weebly, Squarespace". (link)
  • "Look at attrition rates on JP/non-JP sites, or run some new user tests on http://l blow you away." (link) In short, there is objective proof that default WordPress is too difficult for many users and Jetpack improves on-boarding.
  • "There's secular decline of non-mobile, non-social publishing systems." (link) WordPress doesn't have a great mobile or social experience and so we should natually expect it to be declining without help from outside source like JetPack. Anecdotally, I heard at the conference that Matt is placing enormous energy into refocusing Automattic on mobile. Everyone is getting re-trained, company priorities are now centered on mobile and we will likely see new or improved WordPress apps soon.

Beyond the quotes on Twitter, I'm going to paraphrase some of what I heard from Matt. Apologies henceforth for any misquotes or misunderstanding ...

Matt seems to think the WordPress has The Innovator's Dilemma. The WordPress development community is locked into protecting its existing user base and revenue streams. As an industry becomes successful, that always brings a lack of mobility and an unwillingness to risk change.

Currently, the WordPress community isn't thinking broadly enough and doesn't fully appreciate the threat from services such as Wix, Weebly and Squarespace. Matt seemed to be prodding the audience to take these threats much more seriously.

Matt also seemed to be suggesting that there are real limitations to what open source can do alone:

  • The open source development process can't move fast enough to keep up with SaaS companies who can push out updates every day.
  • The open source community isn't well suited to building high-quality apps, particularly for platforms such as iOS.
  • Open source by itself can't provide many of the tools that SaaS can such as a CDN service, easy video hosting, security monitoring.

Here are some much longer quotes from Matt, talking more about the intersection of open source and SaaS.

My thoughts

It's possible I'm cherry-picking some of Matt's comments, but I wanted to write about them because that's the way I've been thinking lately, as anyone who's argued with me about auto-updates knows.

  • I no longer hear end users compare WordPress to Joomla or Drupal. When I'm talking to small business owners, they're making a choice between WordPress and services such as Weebly, Wix and Squarespace. Website statistics are awful and probably don't fully reflect the use of these SaaS services. Drupal has about 1 million active websites, whereas Wix claims (take this with a pinch of salt) over 57 million users.
  • We talked about SaaS in our predictions for 2015. The most successful open source projects in 2015 will be those who combine the best of open source and SaaS. It's worth remembering that WordPress powers over 20% because it has a SaaS product already. WordPress.com users are about 50% of all WordPress users already, so it's fair to say that WordPress is already a SaaS-first product.

So here's the tldr

The real threat to open source's market share is SaaS. To survive, open source projects need to offer some of their own centralized SaaS tools otherwise they'll lose the low and middle end of the market.

Whenever I talk with developers about the threat of SaaS, they think I'm crazy. Even at Pressnomics after Matt's interview, a lot of people were dismissing these SaaS services as toys. Maybe I'm wrong, but I wonder if they're too focused on the codebase and on enterprise users?

Over to you, I'd love your thoughts on this ...


About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.