The WordPress ecosystem, now powering over 17% of the web, has been successful beyond even my wildest expectations when I started working with it over 5 years ago. As one of the best-known examples of open source software with business applications, it’s natural to ask what’s behind its success.
My study of the WordPress ecosystem, published in the Communications of the AIS, looks at the rich contributions to WordPress in the form of extensions. Extensions include plugins that add new functionality, and themes that change the look and feel, many of which are freely available. My research found that individual volunteers and enthusiasts contribute many high quality extensions, as you might expect in an open source project, but also a surprising number of contributions from small businesses. WordPress consultants and service providers do give back to the platform, but even some of the non-technical businesses (including bunk bed retail, real estate, and motorcycle repair) make contributions. In WordPress, the democratization of business software lies not just in the free use, but also in the widespread contribution of extensions, which are much less intimidating to offer up to the community than software updates to the core of the platform.
Not only do small businesses contribute, but they naturally form an ecosystem with at least two other types of contributors: pure volunteers, and hobbyists who hope to make a little money on the side with ads or donations (I call them ‘quasi-commercial’). Individual volunteers tend to contribute the more glamorous front-end extensions that provide new user features, small businesses tend to contribute less flashy back-end extensions that integrate systems and work behind the scenes, and the ‘quasi-commercial’ players lie somewhere in between. Interestingly, Fortune 500 firms, many of whom use WordPress, were nowhere to be found on the list of contributors.
I wonder what will be the next business software category to be democratized, with the help of small business?