Will Premium Plugins Survive as WordPress Core Becomes More Feature-Rich?

If you follow Make WordPress Core (or our regular WordPress core update posts), you know the last several updates have been focused on two things: security and features.

Now security is just a given. The more secure WordPress is, the better it is for all of us. But what about features? The more features, the better too, right?

Not necessarily. One could argue that the more features added to Core, the more bloated the WordPress installation will become, and the more likely it is premium plugin developers will be shoved out into the cold as a result.

Over at Pole Vault Web, an excellent example is raised of the potential risk posed to premium plugin developers. Specifically, during a Post Meta Team meeting, Eric Andrew Lewis said “Post Meta” referred to the “developer’s experience from the back-end – creating input elements for meta fields in a programatic method.” He goes on to note that there have been many plugins to fulfill this role like Advanced Custom Fields and Pods, “for the moment,” and that they can be viewed as “spiritual prequels to a new core-worthy plugin.”


A statement like that has got to sting a bit for plugin developers who pore over their work for hours at a time. And it begs the question: Do premium plugins have a place in the future, even as Core folds more features into itself?

Premium Plugins Have Always Been Risky

Even back when WordPress started and people first began cobbling together plugins to sell (I talk about it like Automattic got its start in a log cabin next to the blacksmith’s shop or something), there was a risk that those plugins would be made obsolete by future WordPress updates – that the features those plugins offered would be made a part of the Core installation and no longer needed.

Ever since WordPress started using Feature Plugins to allow for smoother Core updates, many have been raising their eyebrows.

Austin Powers meme

Maybe everything, maybe nothing Austin.

Matt Mullenweg, Automattic co-founder, believes WordPress plugins lose value when they’re inaccessible and should be made available for free. In an ideal world, okay. We’d all be creating things for the love and sharing things with each other without a need for pay. And while most people in the WordPress development community genuinely love the platform, they need to make a living, too. We’ve all got bills to pay and to suggest that developers should just give away their plugins for free is idealistic at best.

But there are still very real concerns regarding how plugin developers can stay competitive (while still making a buck) as WordPress adopts more features from premium plugins into Core.

What Will Premium Plugins Look Like in the Future?

VelocityPage PluginI would say, “good question,” but I asked it myself, so that would be weird.

Instead, I’ll just say that while premium plugins will definitely change in the future, we’re already seeing glimpses of what they’ll look like right now. A perfect example comes in the form of VelocityPage.

This plugin allows users to add front-end page layout functionality to just about any theme. Which is really cool. So cool, I reviewed it.

But that’s not all that makes this plugin so revolutionary. No, what makes it a true standout comes down to three facts:

Wait, what?

Including features that might appear in future WordPress Core updates doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing on the surface, but Jaquith isn’t worried. He has the benefit of seeing this from a plugin developer’s side and a Core developer’s side, so his opinion carries weight.

“WordPress Core has to be more conservative in what features get added, because its not just a publishing app – it’s a publishing platform,” Jaquith says, adding, “If it gets too heavy or cumbersome, it could lose a lot of its ease-of-use appeal.”

Because WordPress needs to maintain a certain level of usability and can’t get too large, Jaquith believes that premium plugins will always have a place. “I think there’s always going to be room for well-executed, well-supported plugins that expand on WordPress’ abilities and give people new abilities,” he says.

In terms of VelocityPage, in particular, I had to ask about the proposed front-end editor currently in the works for Core. On its surface, it seems like something that would make the likes of VelocityPage obsolete, but again, Jaquith isn’t worried one bit.

WordPress Front End Editor

“VelocityPage isn’t really a front-end content editor,” he says, “It’s more of a front-end page layout tool.” So, you can layout a page using a grid with rows and columns, add items, and rearrange them. Jaquith likens VelocityPage to a pencil and sticky notes that can be moved around compared to the front-end editor for Core’s pencil and pad of paper.

While they cover similar terrain, they do offer different features. And that gets precisely at the point I’m trying to make: There’s no way WordPress could ever include all of the features every developer could ever possibly want.

That’s what it all boils down to, really. Since WordPress will have to be limited at some point in terms of the features it offers – because everyone won’t need everything – the developers will start prioritizing what makes it in and what’s better left added on via plugin.

Surely, we’re getting awfully close to that tipping point now. The latest Core releases have gone full hog on features. And they’re great; don’t get me wrong. But this isn’t a sustainable course. A few more updates like those previous and WordPress would arguably become far too bloated to run or even operate efficiently.

The Future of Premium Plugins

If I had to distill what I think is in store for the premium plugin market, it comes down to the following:

A lot of people have been worried about where premium plugins will go from here but I’m thinking, don’t sweat it. There will still be plenty of opportunities to build viable commercial plugin businesses when Core becomes more feature-rich.

Really, it’s all comes down to creativity. Yes, it’s scary that things might change. A few plugins might vanish as a result. But the entirety of the premium plugin market? Not so much. There will always be room for those who offer something new, something different, something functional.

What about you? Are you worried about WordPress Core becoming loaded up with too many features? Think the death knell is tolling for premium plugins? Or perhaps you’re not concerned at all. Please let me know how you’re feeling about all this below!

Brenda Barron

Brenda is a writer from southern California, a WordPress enthusiast, and Doctor Who addict. She contributes to several business and technology blogs, including her own, Digital Inkwell. You can follow her on Google+.


  1. Christina Warren

    Great article! The dilemma/open-question WordPress plugin devs face is something that most (if not all) platforms developers have to deal with at some point or another. In the Mac community, we call it “Sherlocking” when Apple builds a feature into OS X or iOS that bears strong resemblance/shares functionality with a popular third-party app. (The story behind that term is pretty interesting, if only because the company that was the “victim” of the fist Sherlocking — has actually been “Sherlocked” twice. More than a decade after the first incident, they are still a Mac-only software house, which kind of proves that even “the man” steals your livestock, the land he offers you is still too valuable to give up, or something)

    Other developer/design communities have faced this too – notably Expression Engine, which had previously tried to avoid replicating popular pay plugins that its community built, I guess to foster that ecosystem. But then the most prolific of those developers made their own CMS that competes directly with Expression Engine, the Ellis Lab decided to build the functionality of two of the third parties plugins directly into EE.

    I actually think the EE case is instructive because it shows why a core product can’t just ignore what’s happening on the outside. If you reach a point (as EE did), where virtually every new site built with WordPress (or EE or whatever) will probably require a certain plugin, that plugin should be part of core. That’s what is best for the overall platform and product.

    In the Mac community, I’ve seen three general results from Sherlocking:

    1. The built-in option all but makes the third party obsolete and the product or company ends up shutting down.
    2. There is little impact to the third party at all, regardless to the similarities.
    3. The third party has more success because of the attention/awareness the built-in feature brings to the concept.

    Now , number three is the least common — 1Password from AgileBits may have seen an increase in sales after iCloud Keychain was released because it got people using an password manager and got them to want a solution that could work in other browsers/non-Apple devices too. But generally, point one or two is what will happen.

    I think that the developer approach has to depend on the plugin type and the similarity to the core feature. You have to assume that if the core feature is “good enough” (so not feature parity, but good enough), you will lose a significant segment of your potential buying audience. This is even more true if the function or plugin is sold to end-users primarily and not other developers. If this is the case, I would start planning to transition to a new product type or trying to pivot the target audience.

    If the plugin is similar in scope, but offers far more features — and importantly feature core can’t/won’t include, the core audience will probably stick with your product. All marketing now needs to focus on the areas that your solution is better than the built-in option. It should also be as compatible as it can be with the core option.

    It’s tricky, but it’s a risk you always take when you build on someone else’s platform. It by no means, however, that third-party development is dead or even in trouble. It’s just part of the game!

    1. Leo

      Thanks! Brilliant writing Christina! Can’t say more. Having spoken that, WordPress does need the following in its core
      1) SEO
      2) Security
      3) ecommerce

      I mean, we can use premium plugins like Woocommerce or Yoast SEO, but why isn’t one being developed and put in the core? 🙂

  2. Dan Knauss (@newlocalmedia)

    I think Mark is right that the core should remain fairly agnostic and flexible about things like templating and editing features, so it would not make sense for their to be a conflict of interest between core feature development and a feature-rich product like VP. Still, some might argue that a WP core developer is in a unique position to protect his own products from economically unfavorable changes to the core — a competitive advantage not held by others.

    Overall, it does seems best to promote innovation rather than protectionism with software like this. Developers should risk creating products that might later be assimilated into the WP core because that possibility is not necessarily bad for their business. At worst it would mean creating a viable, profitable product with a sunset.

    A point of clarity about Matt Mullenweg’s stance — you may inadvertently make it sound like he thinks all plugins should be free of charge. IIRC, his view is that plugins should use a freemium model where there is a free version accessible to everyone — typically located in the WP.org plugin repository. Charging for support services, subscriptions to updates, and access to extended features are the ways this model becomes commercially viable.

    1. Brenda Barron

      Hi Dan,

      You’ve raised some excellent points here. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m anxious to see how core features and freemium plugins continue to overlap and change.

  3. Charlie P

    Quite frankly, the evolution of core features in WordPress is probably good for the ecosystem as it weeds out the unnecessary plugins widespread in the repository, as well as forces authors to step up their plugins. All in all, it’s moving forward and shouldn’t be viewed as detrimental to the premium plugin marketplace.

  4. Mikko

    Well, I was certainly worried when WordPress improved the search features in 3.7 – would my Relevanssi search plugin become obsolete? Fortunately, it didn’t. Many people got a better search and some of them might have upgraded to Relevanssi, and some of them might have bought Relevanssi Premium. It’s not a big loss, though, and still, people who want a really good or more customizable search will turn to Relevanssi.

    As WooThemes blog says: “Relevanssi clearly has a leg up on WordPress search, and is arguably as good as or superior to Google Custom Search. Ultimately, for those who need more sophisticated search functionality and are willing to go through the hassle of installing a plugin, Relevanssi is a great choice – even with WordPress’s search update.”

    As for future, I’m not worried – Relevanssi offers such a detailed search experience that I find it unlikely that WordPress Core will ever have something like that.

    1. Brenda Barron

      Agreed, Mikko! While I think Core is becoming more feature-rich by the day, I also think there will always be room for expansion on those features via plugins. There’s always room for growth!

  5. Tom Ewer

    Great piece Brenda. I tend to agree with you, although I do think that some premium plugin developers will be hurt by future updates. But as far as I am concerned, that goes with the territory – it’s always been the case with WordPress.

    My hope is that the CMS’ continual development galvanizes independent developers to become even more creative in what they do!

    1. Brenda Barron

      I couldn’t agree more, Tom. Of course, some features in current premium plugins may become obsolete as they’re rolled into Core but for the most part, even those developers that are hurt by these updates should be able to find new ways to expand on what comes standard. More creativity, as you said, is a must!

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