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I am only half kidding about the title. While few in the community see it yet, WordPress has a serious problem.

“But Samurai,” you cry “WordPress is strong in the market and there are millions of dollars, surely it is thriving!”. I hear you and yes, currently WordPress is doing very well. It powers much of the web, and more and more people come online with WordPress every day. Seemingly then, all is well… this is an illusion.

To understand the problem, you must understand two things.

  1. What is a “maven”?
  2. The current state of WordPress themes sucks.

What is a Maven?

In “The Tipping Point” author Malcom Gladwell introduces the term to describe those individuals who sit at the center of a large social graph as it relates to a product or trend. You ever notice that there is usually someone you know who seems to be “the guy” to go to on a specific topic? You might know one person who is “really knows laptops” and another who “has a line on the best new bands to check out”.

Get it?

It is the mavens who set the trends into motion. Much of the advertising you see today that doesn’t ever give you real information about a product, just flashes of motion and small bits of the product in use? Those ads are coded for, and targeted at, the mavens. They don’t need the ad to give them detailed information because they either heard all about your product months before you released it or they will find out all about it within an hour if you can get them to care.

WordPress dominates in large part because it became the go-to tool of tech mavens. Each of us is approached multiple times a week at least, dozens sometimes with the same question – “I need to set up a web site, what should I use?”.  For years now the answer to a huge number of these has been “WordPress”. More specifically for many of us it is to recommend one of the WordPress specific hosting companies.

We pointed folks at WordPress because it was  good, easy to set up and well understood. For a long time WordPress was much better than anything in its class and even now holds its own. The problem is not that WordPress has changed so much in that time… it is that the nature of these requests has. The web is continuing to burrow deeper into the economic lives of everyone in a developed nation with a free economy. Not only do more and more clients and friends need a web presence but they need them to be more sophisticated, stand out or solve just one little quirk of their specific need.

Many of the mavens however, myself among them, grow more and more reluctant to say “WordPress” these days. We still do say it, of course, because often there is no credible alternative but we say it with a resigned sigh like a man who is about to drive in his 1000th screw with the only convenient hammer at hand (see note at bottom before you freak out please).

The cause of this reluctance brings us to the second issue.

The current state of WordPress themes sucks

Sad, but true.  Remember, this is from the perspective of someone who spends a lot of talking to clients and friends about these. I will often be the guy not only recommending a theme, but doing the customizing and support. Lets run over the big options fast so you can get a feel for my thought process.

  • Elegant Themes – some incredible designs, but overall too much work to customize to be worth it for me
  • ThemeForrest – some really good themes, but almost all from small vendors who I will never trust for long-term support
  • Headway – a good visual editor, but I spend too much time re-inventing the wheel to get anything done fast
  • Thesis – Slow development progress, too much upgrade pain, last generation technology
  • Genesis – Last generation technology, inefficient to customize
  • Woothemes (all but Canvas) – some great stuff, but I always seem to need to tweak something that is just too inflexible… it is baffling that all their themes are not based on Canvas.

All of which means that for the last year, the only serious contenders I had when building a new WordPress site that needed to deviate from the norm at all were PageLines 2.x and Woothemes Canvas.

It was a toss-up.

Canvas was the less flexible of the pair but PageLines had some quirks that slowed me down. When I was working in Canvas I often really missed many of the choices I had in PageLines , and in PageLines 2.x I missed the fast navigation and fantastic plug-in integration of Canvas. I often had to supplement both of them with the awesome Views plug-in to get close to what I wanted.

About 40% of the time it was just easier to download Twitter Bootstrap and build the whole thing from scratch.

That says it all. With the entire WordPress ecosystem at my disposal, the search for a flexible and supported theme base from a reputable company left me with exactly TWO choices and they often failed me.

This is why myself and many mavens are hungry for an alternative to WordPress. This is why among the larger client consulting developers WordPress is no longer often considered as a viable base. We are no longer looking for ways TO use WordPress, but often ways to avoid it. Andrew at PageLines obviously feels my pain on this.

Can DMS Turn this Around?

The short answer is yes, I think it can. I have worked with the beta and I have to tell you honestly that it is good. Really, good. For the first time in a fair while I am able to start working on a new WordPress site and consider the ways to solve my clients problems, not work around issues in the platform.

The UI choices are excellent, providing a much needed visual advantage over PageLines 2.0 while not going as far as Headway. The decision to base DMS on Bootstrap (which was true of 2.x as well) is inspired and makes DMS modification friendly in ways you cannot appreciate till you work with it. The ecosystem for additional sections and extensions is thriving. DMS is a great tool.

If that was all there was to the story though it would not be enough to bring the mavens back in force. Three factors will be the key to the impact DMS will have on the ecosystem.

  • DMS gets all the big choices right: It is good looking out of the box, easy to extend, developer friendly and fast to build custom layouts with. When you are done, it is easy to get that same layout on another site.
  • DMS will force competitors to match it: They will have to evolve and raise their game some, or become side notes. Woothemes in particular is in the cross-hairs here.
  • DMS will be ubiquitous: As an open source project there is zero cost to entry for working with DMS and no excuse to not at least evaluate. Obviously PageLines has a revenue model for extended features and support but I promise you once you see what they have in mind on that you will understand why that will be no barrier.

The entire thrust of “The Tipping Point” is that the right event, at the right moment can kick off a large change. WordPress is ripe for something to happen, the tensions and strains are taking a toll. With new options coming and its PHP core showing it’s age WordPress has lost it’s mind share among the folks who make the choices for projects. Something has to give, or the long slow slide WordPress was just starting becomes inevitable.

It is unfortunate that this had to come from outside the WordPress core, but fortunately it has.

Note: We could argue for days about the alternative CMS choices but it is beyond the scope of this post. Yes, there are some, yes many of them are superior to WordPress in many ways, yes for larger clients custom work is also an option and no – not a single one of them but Ghost is any threat to WordPress at this time.