SAN FRANCISCO — Starting tomorrow, Matt Mullenweg will be leading development on WordPress 3.8.
It’s a bit unusual for a founder of a 184-person company with a hugely popular product to take direct part in product development. But Mullenweg wants to be part of an ambitious acceleration in the WordPress release cycle that will bring two new versions out between now and the end of the year.
In a frank chat with the WordPress creator and Automattic founder, we learned a bit about the company’s inner workings and why the 29-year-old mogul is taking a frontline position for the next big WordPress release. Even though he’s had a couple of recent personal liquidity events, the founder is far from taking it easy.
“It’s a reset,” he told VentureBeat in an interview at WordCamp today.
“My intention with leading 3.8 … is to help shepherd in a new generation of WordPress,” he continued. Referring to the process of contributions and plugins, he said, “Right now, everything goes through eight people.” All that’s about to change with the more democratic 3.8, which is due for release this December. (Version 3.6 will come out shortly, with enhanced support for various media types and with a slick new revision-tracking slider; and version 3.7 is due out in October.)
“We’ll see how it goes,” said Mullemweg. “It could be a huge mistake. But we’ll know by the end of the year.”
Mullenweg handed over the top position at Automattic to Toni Schneider in 2006 when he snagged the then-Yahoo exec to serve as Automattic’s CEO. Mullenweg said he and Schneider are eye-to-eye on how WordPress.org is managed and that he’s felt no loss of control over either the open-source project or the company he founded. He maintains majority control of Automattic as well as a seat on the board.
“I think the key to scaling, the only way I’ve been able to do what I do, is working with the best people in the world and giving them autonomy, control, [and] trust,” he said. And giving Schneider & Co. trust means Mullenweg can keep doing what he started out to do in the first place: build a great platform.
When it comes to product, Mullenweg told us, “I’ve been personally involved with MP6, and I really enjoy that kind of work. We’ve been doing a lot of this around WordPress.com, and it’s been really exciting. … It’s driven a ton of activity and engagement. To be able to do that on the open-source side, that’s cool.”
Mullenweg also said he takes a lot of responsibility for the core WordPress theme each year. In addition to changing the release cycle for those themes (they’ll come out now before the year begins, i.e., Twenty Fourteen will be released late in 2013), the new WordPress themes also feature new, more magazine-like treatment of multimedia.
“Joen [Asmussen] took a lot of inspiration from print,” he said. “He has a ton of these cool-old sci-fi posters, and that’s a lot of the images we’ve used for the design. … We were going for an old-school sci-fi feel.”
We asked Mullenweg whether Twenty Thirteen and Twenty Fourteen are inspired by modern web design trends or whether they hope to inform them.
“The themes in WordPress drive a lot of design trends,” he answered. “It democratizes design … You make a theme, and suddenly it’s on hundreds and thousands of sites.”
For Twenty Fourteen, he said, the idea was to take premium WordPress theme features — such as sliders or huge wall-to-wall images — and make them both free and supremely easy to use.
“Sometimes, the design principles aren’t what we do in the core theme,” he said.
“[With premium themes], sometimes the hype doesn’t match the reality. What people imagine them doing and what they actually do, it’s really hard to make your site look like the example. And we want to make it easier to do that.”
He said premium theme makers like WooThemes don’t have to worry about Automattic as a competitor. “It’s only one theme, and there are thousands of themes,” he said. “They’ll be completely fine. In reality, it creates more demand.”
As for mobile, you can expect more releases, more change, and more design modernity there, too.
“Obviously, Android and iOS are the most important for us, and yeah, I think we can [speed up the release cycle],” said Mullenweg. “We’re looking at iOS 7 as an opportunity to reset the codebase and interface.”