Newspack: Automattic, Google, and the SaaSification of WordPress

Earlier today Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com headed by WordPress co-founder and project lead Matt Mullenweg) announced Newspack by WordPress.com, a “next-generation publishing platform” “aimed at small- and medium-sized news organizations”. The new platform is funded in part by Google, through the Google News Initiative, and other companies. Here are my preliminary thoughts.

A missed opportunity for established players

While I’m zero percent surprised this service has been announced, I’m surprised it didn’t come sooner, and from someone other than Automattic. Automattic is not uniquely placed to launch this project, it is just the only player in the WordPress ecosystem with a proven record of offering WordPress as SaaS (Software as a Service). I’m surprised nobody else beat them to it: There are agencies in the WordPress ecosystem with extensive experience working with the exact target audience of Newspack (small- and medium-sized news organizations). In my mind these companies were uniquely placed to either individually or together launch exactly the type of service Automattic has announced.

These agencies have long offered a mix of custom self-hosted WordPress setups and integration with WordPress VIP (also from Automattic). Now the question becomes whether the Newspack platform will be open to agencies in the same way WordPress.com and WordPress VIP are (history points to “yes” on that front) and whether the above mentioned agencies will offer services to its users.

The SaaSification of WordPress

Back in 2013 I wrote a post on my blog predicting a splitting up of the WordPress ecosystem into specialized silos targeting industry segments with unique needs. My argument back then was the user base of WordPress is too heterogenous for one solution to fit all needs. In short, a hobby blogger does not have the same needs as a newspaper. What we’ve seen in the subsequent years is WordPress (the application) continuing in its attempt at being everything to everyone, and Automattic (and in small ways some other agencies and service providers) booting up customized SaaS solutions to fit the unique needs of different user groups. Automattic now has WordPress.com for blogging and small site building, WordPress VIP / Professional for large enterprise solutions, and the just announced Newspack for news. My expectation is they’ll soon offer a dedicated solution for e-commerce as well, through a custom SaaS offering powered by WooCommerce.

My prediction is this latest announcement marks the beginning of the all-out SaaSification of WordPress. The reality is because of the open source status of WordPress (the software), what Automattic has done with WordPress.com and their other services can be done by anyone, and I’d be shocked if Automattic stays the only player in the market for long. To put it bluntly, the days of WordPress self-hosting as the go-to solution for small-, medium-, and enterprise businesses are numbered.

What competing services like Wix and Squarespace have shown us is people want simple solutions to their web hosting that do not involve having a horde of web maintainers on staff or hiring an expensive agency to run everything for them. The obvious answer to this need is to spin up WordPress as a service and extend it to provide customized services for each use case.

We already see this in small ways. Managed hosting companies like WPEngine and Kinsta specialize in hosting and keeping up to date WordPress sites for users with above-average needs. Plugin providers like Yoast offer subscription-based services that reach well beyond what a plugin can do on its own.

The near future will likely see some of these services spin up their own WordPress-powered SaaS offerings targeting specific users. And they may not even say it’s powered by WordPress! As Automattic has demonstrated, you can slap a whole new skin on top of WordPress core and create a custom experience which looks and feels nothing like the main application. The Wix / Squarespace killer may well be a new service running WordPress in the background and a completely unique experience on top. Think managed hosting + a page builder like Elementor or Beaver Builder and a host of other customized services and you see where I’m going with this.

The Fracture

If my predictions here come to pass, the fracture I spoke of in my 2013 article might well be upon us. The divide between self-hosted DIY WordPress users, those on a SaaS solution, and enterprise customers is already big enough the Venn diagram is starting to come apart. The further SaaSification of the ecosystem will make this fracture permanent and put enormous pressure on the WordPress Open Source project.

If/when commercial entities like Automattic start fighting for control over the open source project to shoehorn in the services they need for their new SaaS project, the priorities of the project as a whole will suffer. How WordPress, as a community, decide to deal with this will determine the future viability of the open source project.

At this moment, my crystal ball is pretty foggy, but I’m starting to see a path emerging where SaaS becomes the bread and butter of WordPress agencies and they eventually evolve their products into discrete forks, at which point their participation in the open source project becomes irrelevant and they back out.


Cross-posted on LinkedIn.