WordPress.com ditches PHP for Calypso's JavaScript admin UI

Nice little open source reboot for a quarter of the web's sites

Blog hosting provider WordPress.com is embracing JavaScript and open-sourcing its code base, in what the platform’s chief reckons is a big, risky and controversial bet.

Automattic, the creator of WordPress.com, has revealed the existence of Calypso, a 20-month-old project that rewrites and open sources the code behind the blogging website. The goal is to haul the mechanisms underneath WordPress.com into a modern world of fast browser rendering, mobile devices and open-source partners.

WordPress.com hosts websites powered by the open-source content management system also called Wordpress. Joomla and Drupal are rival CMSes, but are nowhere near as popular. It's not all cupcakes, soy lattes and Fridays off: the WordPress.com team have a venerable PHP code base to manage, and that's proving tricky.

Matt Mullenweg, founder and chief executive of Automattic, reckoned the PHP code contained “countless bug fixes” and handles “hundreds” of edge cases. But, the "interface ... has been a struggle", and Automattic has therefore abandoned past attempts at partial rewrites in favour of a thorough overhaul.

Now, though, new WordPress.com is ditching the PHP code for its admin interface, and replaced it with Calypso, which is written in JavaScript, Node and React.

Calypso ties into social networks, with stats, likes and notifications included in the code, according to Automattic, which also recently bought Cloudup, an API-based file-sharing tool built using JavaScript.

The code’s openness and use of popular libraries such as Node is intended to spark external development, leading to more plug-ins, custom interfaces and distributions on and around WordPress.com.

“The time seemed ripe for something new, something big ... but if you’re going to break backward compatibility, it needs to be for a really good reason. A 20x improvement, not a 2x,” Mullenweg blogged.

“A lot of people thought we should keep this proprietary, but throughout my life I’ve learned that the more you give away, the more you get back,” Mullenweg wrote. “Thousands more PHP developers will need to become fluent with JavaScript to recreate their admin interfaces in this fashion.”

“This was a huge bet, incredibly risky, and difficult to execute, but it paid off. Like any disruption it is uncomfortable, and I’m sure will be controversial in some circles. What the team has accomplished in such a short time is amazing,” Mullenweg wrote. ®

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