In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The invention changed the world because it made information creation, dissemination, and consumption manageable at large scale. Inspired by technology that democratizes the dissemination of information, more than 500 years later a young programmer released WordPress, open source publishing software that today powers nearly a third of the top 10 million sites on the web.

WordPress is not the letterpress. But the analogues are similar, and because the platform is relied on by millions of businesses it’s hard to overstate its impact. TechRepublic’s smart person’s guide is a routinely updated “living” precis loaded with contemporary information about how WordPress works, who WordPress affects, and why the open source publishing software used by millions of developers is important.

SEE: Check out all of TechRepublic’s smart person’s guides

Executive summary

  • What is WordPress? WordPress is an open source content management system maintained by the nonprofit WordPress Foundation. WordPress is also available as a hosted, commercial version maintained by Automattic, the company founded by WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg.
  • Why WordPress matters: WordPress is free, powerful, customizable, and supported by a massive third-party ecosystem.
  • Who WordPress affects: WordPress primarily impacts small and midsize business owners, ecommerce companies, startups, and creative professionals.
  • When WordPress is happening: WordPress iterations have been routinely released since version 1.0 launched in May 2003.
  • How to get started with WordPress: The best way to experience WordPress is to install and experiment with the software. The software is easy to install, and many sites offer affordable cloud hosting.

What is WordPress?

WordPress is a blogging platform built on PHP and MySQL. The basic install is still blog-oriented, but as users customized the code to serve niche purposes WordPress iterations evolved to support features included in CMS competitors Drupal, Magento, and Joomla. Early on, the company partnered with shared hosting providers like GoDaddy.

Today dedicated WordPress cloud hosting allows startups, publishers, and major enterprise companies to scale the platform quickly. Sophisticated code enables the site to behave in radically different ways. With a few clicks the modern WordPress can be customized to suit almost any business need, though it excels at managing ecommerce and content marketing sites.

Large companies that rely on WordPress:

  • CBS Interactive (parent of TechRepublic)
  • The New Yorker
  • MTV
  • TechCrunch
  • eBay
  • Xerox
  • Facebook
  • The New York Times
  • Google Ventures
  • Rackspace

Additional resources:

READ: Launching a startup: A primer for new entrepreneurs (Tech Pro Research eBook)

Why WordPress matters

WordPress matters because it helps companies make money and helps publishers find an audience. Over 400 million people interact with WordPress every month, making the web application one of the largest, most influential platforms on the web. WordPress is a true platform, because it’s so manipulatable, runs on a number of hosting environments, and is supported by the nonprofit WordPress Foundation, the for-profit, and developers.

Usage stats, according to

  • There are over 76 million WordPress blogs.
  • 50,000 new WordPress sites are created every day.
  • WordPress sites experience 22.3 billion page views per month.
  • 59.3 million new posts are added to WordPress sites each month.
  • 3 billion non-spam comments have been written on WordPress sites.

Additional resources:

SEE: Enterprise Startups: Winners, Losers, Potential Shake-ups (Tech Pro Research report)

Who WordPress affects

From corporate blogs to news sites to ecommerce brands, consumers engage with WordPress sites every day. This means WordPress’ growth has been powered largely by business, said Automattic’s CMO Chris Taylor in a recent TechRepublic interview. “You can go to thousands of different websites that are all powered by WordPress,” he said, “but they each look completely unique. This is why businesses love it.”

Open source in particular, Taylor said, is critical to WordPress’ success. “We open up our code for others to build off or contribute to it. It means our users can be assured they will never be locked into a proprietary trap that they can never get out of. For small businesses, the biggest benefit is that, unlike closed website builders with a finite set of features, your business’ needs will never outgrow WordPress.”

“We see tremendous growth in the small business category, and so we want to provide them with offerings that are, on one hand, very simple, but on the other hand, a door to the millions of other [users] who can offer their own expertise,” Taylor said. “In this way, I see a lot of opportunity for us to integrate traditional marketing with the power of community.”

Additional resources:

SEE: Enterprise startups: The cream of the new technology crop (Tech Pro Research report)

When WordPress is happening

When the first version of WordPress was released in the spring of 2003, blogging was in its heyday. In February 2oo3 Google, at the time still primarily a search engine, helped kick-start the Web 2.0 startup boom when the company purchased Pyra Labs, the startup parent of founded by Evan Williams. Blogger simplified web publishing, but the code was closed and hosted on Google servers.

Because the code was open source and offered extensibility in the form of themes and plugins, WordPress took off and became the go-to platform for startups and tech innovators during the critical years after the Web 1.0 bubble burst and before the emergence of Web 2.0, social media, and mobile.

As the platform matured so too did the user base and third-party ecosystem. Today professional and freelance WordPress developers charge anywhere from $35 to $200 per hour. Though hundreds of themes and extensibility options can be installed for free, thousands more professionally created themes are available for purchase through credible vendors.

The recent release of PHP 7 will enable faster and more nimble WordPress customizations. For web marketers in particular, said WPEngine CTO Jason Cohen in a recent interview, “the code will open doors for a new breed of WordPress ecommerce and marketing applications.”

Additional resources:

SEE: Intellectual property: A new challenge in the cloud (Tech Pro Research)

How to get started with WordPress

You can install and use WordPress right now for free, plus the cost of hosting. Most hosts provide one-click installations, allowing users with little web development experience to start using the application quickly. Advanced users know that WordPress is also easy to install and configure using a terminal application.

Because the software is complex the WordPress Foundation maintains an updated list of helpful how-to books. TechRepublic and ZDNet both cover WordPress news, provide information about security patches, and offer details about innovations in cloud hosting. Finally, a virtual sandbox is available if you’d like to test-drive the application before setting up a server.

Additional resources:

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