Thoughts on Themes and @vt.edu

I just gave in to the temptation to start a new blog, having resisted said temptation for… months? years?

I teach at Virginia Tech. Like many universities, it hosts WordPress blogs for those to whom it provides an email address.

So I started a new blog there. Well, there isn’t physically at Virginia Tech: Blogs @VT is run by Pressable.

I had fun choosing a theme, and writing about choosing a theme. Is that sad? Understandable? Feel free to leave other adjectives in comments.

This will continue to be my main blog, and my personal home on the web.

WordPress (not com) Themes: Search and Spam

After the good news about themes at WordPress.com comes some bad news about themes for self-hosted WordPress sites. Siobhan Ambrose at WPMU.org wondered what she’d find if she Googled “Free WordPress Themes.” She examined themes from each of the top 10 hits for that search.

The result? Only one of the 10 theme sites was “safe.” Another was “iffy.” For the other 8, Siobhan’s advice is “avoid,” on the basis that some of the themes use Base64 encoding in order to sneak spammy links into the theme. Base64 can also be used to include malware.

The safe site is the WordPress.org themes directory. Since it currently includes well over a thousand themes, there seems little danger of a free theme shortage. Each of the themes there is under the GPL, and so is free as in freedom and well as free as in beer. In other words, you are free to modify the code of those themes.

This doesn’t mean that every source of free themes other than the official WordPress.com directory is bad. What it does mean is that, just as social media attracts spam, social media tools attract spam-producing components. It also means that some of the people who make those components also study the dark side of SEO.

WordPress.com Themes

Last week, WordPress.com theme wrangler Lance asked on the forums: If you could change one thing about your theme, what would it be? I was the second person to reply.

I didn’t hold my breath waiting for my request to be implemented, since Simpla is not among the newest or the most popular themes available at WordPress.com. But, if you look at a single post on this blog, you’ll see links to the next and previous posts. In other words, my request was implemented within days. I’m impressed, even factoring in the fact that next/previous links aren’t complex things, and that some believe that they should be part of the post layout of every theme.

I’m hoping that the Theme Team will write a summary of Project One Thing. In fact, I’ll head over to their recent post at the WP.com blog to suggest it.

PressRow on Death Row

The selection of themes at WordPress.com no longer includes Cutline. Why not? Here’s how staffer Themeshaper explained in the support forum.

When we first added the Cutline theme to WordPress.com it was free software. That means the users of that theme had the freedom to use, share, and modify that theme as they wished—as long as they passed those freedoms on when they shared it. That freedom let us bring the Cutline theme here to WordPress.com and it’s the same freedom that’s made WordPress so popular…

Cutline was sold a few years ago and had a more restrictive license placed on it. The original author of the Cutline theme has gone on to produce other themes with more restrictive licenses. Using Cutline has been seen as a promotion of that work and that’s not something we want to do

Posting on the replacement of Cutline with Coraline, I closed with a thought on another theme.

If I were using PressRow at WordPress.com, I’d be wondering how much longer I’d have it for, and what might replace it.

One comment on the post provides confirmation that PressRow is on death row. Another identifies PressRow as the theme of choice if you want Cutline and can no longer use it. That’s not surprising, since the two themes share a designer (Chris Pearson) and hence a certain look and feel.

I hope that WordPress.com will handle the endgame for PressRow more gracefully than it handled the Cutline cutoff. In other words, I hope that PressRow users won’t suddenly find that they are using a different theme.

I fear a worse than that case scenario, in which:

  • Most, or many, PressRow users get no advance warning.
  • They are switched to a theme they didn’t choose, had never heard of, and, in many cases, dislike.
  • They find their widgets, as well as their theme, gone.
  • They just switched to PressRow, and did so when Cutline went away.

All except the last of these happened during the Cutline cut. The last could happen, especially given the similarity of PressRow to Cutline, and the fact that PressRow is a prominent theme at WordPress.com: if you sort themes on popularity, PressRow is on the front page.

The number of PressRow blogs at WordPress.com may well be in six figures. I arrive at that noting that it is the 14th most popular theme, and that WordPress.com hosts millions of blogs.

I’d like to see a retirement plan for PressRow, stating things like how to forwarn every PressRow user, how much notice to give, etc. I’d like to see the plan itself posted, so that the community can comment on it.

If PressRow/death row isn’t handled better than Cutline/cut, we may see one of WordPress.com’s competitors advancing the proposition: come to us, we won’t cut your theme or put it on death row. That said, the most recent and aggressive attempt to get migrants from WordPress came from Posterous, which has more recently had downtime woes. The most likely migration destination from WordPress.com is still self-hosted WordPress.

Coraline: The WordPress Theme

CoralineCoraline is the story of a girl who finds herself in a different reality. I like the original Neil Gaiman novel, and the movie (and this photo, by origami_potato, of a Coraline doll).

Another Coraline story concerns WordPress.com users who find themselves with a different theme. Coraline is a new theme at WordPress.com, where it has replaced Cutline. I think that this is the first time that WordPress.com has removed a theme and switched all sites from that theme to another, without prior warning.

Is it surprising that this particular theme – Cutline – has been retired from WordPress.com? Yes and no. Yes, since Cutline was one of the most popular themes at WordPress.com. No, given the recent controversy involving Cutline designer Chris Pearson.

I’m not the only person who thought that Cutline might have been retired because of its designer. This thought is expressed in one of the many forum threads protesting the abrupt replacement of Cutline with Coraline. Other such posts include: YOU changed my theme without my knowledge; Cutline is Gone!?@(!(!(; WordPress deleted my theme w/out notification.

I note that there is another popular WordPress.com theme designed by Chris Pearson: PressRow. If I were using PressRow at WordPress.com, I’d be wondering how much longer I’d have it for, and what might replace it.

WordPress Theme Thesis Now GPL’d

Thesis is now under the GPL. That is, the PHP code that forms the bulk of the WordPress theme Thesis is now under the GPL, the same free software license as WordPress itself.

A week ago, I posted on the Thesis licensing controversy, closing with the wish that it wouldn’t go to court. Well, that wish was granted. I am “glad that Pearson saw fit to respect the GPL and that no blood was shed in the process” (to quote Jolie O’Dell, who has moved to Mashable from RWW).

Why should WordPress themes (not just Thesis) be GPL’d? WordPress core developer Mark Jaquith made a thorough argument that: Theme code necessarily derives from WordPress and thus must be licensed under the GPL if it is distributed. There’s lively discussion at Mark’s blog and at Reddit.

WordPress, the GPL, and Thesis

WordPress is open source software, licensed under the GPL (as its About page tells us). The question is: does the fact that WordPress is under the GPL mean that WordPress themes must also be under the GPL? This question of WordPress theme licensing has come to a head recently, as what Mitch Canter calls the great Thesis vs. WordPress theme debate.

Thesis is the flagship theme at DIYthemes. It is one of several WordPress themes developed by Chris Pearson. It is not under the GPL, because Chris doesn’t want it to be, and doesn’t think it has to be.

Why should a WordPress theme use the GPL? One way of making the argument is to use the following quote from the GPL FAQ. Combining two modules means connecting them together so that they form a single larger program. If either part is covered by the GPL, the whole combination must also be released under the GPL. A WordPress theme is a module that combines with WordPress core and with plugins to form a single larger program.

That’s the argument advance in a comment on the above-referenced great debate post. The comment is by Dougal Campbell, whose own post on the issue includes a good collection of links. Talking of links, my way in to this discussion was a post by Chris Cameron at RWW. That post focuses rather more on a specific exchange between Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg than on the wider issue.

I lean toward the view that WordPress themes (and plugins) are modules that combine with the core code. So they should be under the GPL, and hence free (as in freedom). If that makes a developer uneasy, well, maybe they should have thought of that before developing modules that combine with GPL’d code.

On the other hand, I think that reasonable people can disagree on this issue. So how to resolve it? Through the courts?

I have a few questions about the legal route. First, who has the best standing to bring suit? Would it be the WordPress Foundation (an organization of and from which I’ve heard little since its founding)?

Second, is this particular case too clouded by issues specific to Thesis to provide a good test of the basic question of theme licensing? (I’m thinking of statements that Thesis includes some code lifted from WordPress core.)

Finally, would a lawsuit be a good use of anyone’s resouces? I strongly suspect not.

WooThemes

WooThemesWooThemes is Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud, according to 37signals’ Matt. As its About page/comic illustrates, Woo is in the WordPress theme business.

Woo has much in common with Automattic, the firm behind WordPress, and with 37signals. All three firms are distributed: Woo has three principals, one each in South Africa, England, and Norway.

As someone who has written about the WordPress ecosystem, I was struck by this quote from Woo founder Adii Pienaar.

We have created a niche, micro-economy, where a lot of our users — specifically the designers and developers — are selling add-on services that relate to our themes in one way or another… So we’re finding that users are helping each other on our support forums, while also building their own businesses using our themes.

Woo didn’t just find a niche for itself: it created an ecosystem within the WordPress ecosystem. It is now exploring other publishing platforms/ecosystems. For example, there are now Woo themes for Drupal.

Woo particularly impresses 37signals by being like 37signals. Neither firm took venture capital, and each has grown “organically,” from profits, without taking investment from outside.

Woo’s About page/comic refers to WordPress default themes as boring. I’d say that has ceased to be true now that WordPress 3.0 comes with Twenty Ten as the default theme. But it looks as though Woo, its brand, and its ecosystem have arrived at the point at which it doesn’t need other themes to be boring in order to stand out.

Talking of the Woo brand, I came across what I think of as a neat bit of brand-building when I was upgrading blogs at WanderNote, which lives at BlueHost. Use of Simplescripts there is “sponsored by WooThemes Get a fresh new free or premium WordPress theme!” Upgrade and installation are good times to tell WordPress admins about theme options.

I’d be interested to read your impressions of WooThemes: the themes, the organization, the way in which it has grown? Mine are fairly positive, although I’ve yet to use any Woo themes myself.

WordPress 3.0: Twenty Ten as Default Theme

As I noted in January, WordPress is getting a new default theme: Twenty Ten. Over at WordPlay, where I’m playing with WordPress 3.0, I set up a blog to explore the new theme.

I just posted about how Twenty Ten does header images: IMHO, it does them right. I’ll soon add other posts on other features of Twenty Ten to that test blog.

I’ll also add more posts to this series on WordPress 3.0 here at Changing Way. Changing Way lives at WordPress.com, and so gets the 3.0 features as, when, and if they are folded into WordPress.com.

Twenty Ten is biggish news for WordPress.com. It’ll take over as default theme sometime soon, and it’s a significant improvement.

WordPress.com Themes and Team

WordPress.com now has an official Theme Team, according to Ian Stewart of said team. There’s an impressive manifesto, starting with:

Every WordPress.com user should feel like there’s a theme that fits them perfectly.

My first reaction was that means highly customizable themes, and some of the discussion in comments on Ian’s post supports that.

Ian also mentions “web standards,” which I of course support. I’m hoping that new themes will also adhere to some kind of “WordPress theme standard.” For example, new themes should all the same html tag for post titles. Consistency would make a lot of things easier: changing themes when you have the CSS upgrade; responding to some of the posts in the WordPress.com forums; applying Typekit to WordPress.com blogs.

I’ll follow the work of the theme team with interest. I’m happy with Simpla, as CSS’d and widget’d for this blog, but I could be tempted by a clean, customizable theme.