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Why are good plugins becoming orphans?

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November 29th, 2009
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Blogging Essays, WordPress Plugins

Preface

The act of adopting an abandoned plugin reminds me of adopting an orphaned child. On the one hand, the new parents are taking on someone who they didn’t help raise thus far, which forces them to “learn” the ways of the new child to communicate well with them. On the other hand, the new parent is left with the fear that there will come a day that the old parent will come to claim their rights on the child.

The analogy I brought can go some way in building an intuition about the problem of orphaned plugins, but if we want to go beyond just intuition we need to take a more in-depth look at the subject. I hope such a look will inspire a discussion that will benefit us all.

The chase for a faster plugin installation

My prime example for an orphan plugin for this post will be the “Improved Plugin Installation” plugin. What is it:

This plugin is an improvement to the current WP 2.7 plugin installation methods. It allows you to install one or more plugins simply by typing their names or download URLs in a textarea.
This means you can install all your favorite WordPress plugins in one go!
Furthermore, a bookmarklet is included which lets you install plugins directly from an external plugin download page. (See screenshots tab)

Sounds heavenly. Why? because the “add a plugin” feature that Automattic introduced, And the already existing, “One Click Plugin Updater” – where both lacking in exactly what “Improved Plugin Installation” came to solve. That is – they didn’t allow for a massive, fast, easy way to upload a lot of (predefined) plugins in one time. This is, to my opinion, the biggest cost effective solution for a bottleneck in today’s WordPress installation, and it was solved! Or was it?

After the release of WP 2.8, me and others suddenly discovered that “Improved Plugin Installation” stopped working. 5 Months later, after seeing that no programmer came forward to fix the problem, I published the cry on the forums “An orphan plugin is looking to be updated: “Improved Plugin Installation” “, 5 days have passed, and no one replied.

So what do you think should happen next?

This question is directed at you, the reader. But with your permission, I will assume my prerogative.

The first one is that there is a need for someone (who knows plugin programming) to take on himself to fix “Improved Plugin Installation” for WordPress 2.8+. This conclusion is the easy one.

The bigger question here is what is the pattern behind the story. What is missing in our community that we do not adopt orphaned plugins? My personal answer (and I hope for yours as well) is the further improvement of the “Compatibility” section in the WordPress Plugin Directory.
Up until now the Compatibility window gave an action item for just two audiences: The plugin users (don’t download the file) and the plugin authors (Maybe I should fix my plugin). But there is a third audience who are not being addressed. That is the other developers in the community. Imagine that a plugin is voted incompatible (above X consensus level), for T amount of time. I hope that there is a system e-mailing the plugin author letting him know that his plugin is having issues (I don’t know if there is). But what if the problem persists longer? Maybe we should have another page, for other developers to let them know that a plugin is suspect of being abandoned.
Maybe developers should commit, when uploading a plugin, to saying after what amount of time, should the system consider their plugin as an orphaned one – and to go look for someone else to be its parent.

I don’t have the right answer, but I hope one of you will.

About the author:
Tal Galili is passionate for WebActivism, WordPress and Statistics. He was proud to have helped with the organizing of WordCamp Israel 2007 and WordCamp Israel 2008, and is hoping to see another one in 2010. Tal Galili writes (about the web and beyond) in Hebrew, and will start writing (on statistics) in English at Statistics and R

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41
Responses

 

Comments

  1. Robert@PNG (6 comments.) says:

    The nature and risk of Open Source!

    R

    • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

      Robert,
      What do you think of the idea I suggested at the end?

      Tal

      • Robert@PNG (6 comments.) says:

        Tal,

        It’s an interesting topic and your request is obviously genuine.

        I have had a similar experience with several other plugins. In the case where my blog heavily relied on one plugin – I have had to adapt. As WordPress evolves – as themes evolve – plugin authors aim to keep up. I think they’re a tremendous bunch and contribute much to the WP Community.

        I say interesting because it touches on the subject of “How long will this piece of Open Source software be around for”. This is the risk of Open Source – WP and plugins alike – certainly In a business environment this holds true.

        OSS is only ever as strong as the Community it builds around itself. WP currently has a loyal following and many give freely of their time and energy to make WP what it is. Plugins also gather a “crowd” – albeit smaller but still a community as such.

        Some plugins – the “ants pants” couple years back are now all but dead (eg: WPG2 and Simple Tags). I know some folks that built their sites around WPG2 and are now finding It harder and harder to keep up with the versions. What do these people do? Migrations are a pain the neck. This is the nature of the beast.

        The options you now have as I see it:

        (based on what I have read – it is unlikely that this plugin is going to be revived by its author – it has only been downloaded 1300 times – has not progressed in 12 months since 1.0) :

        1) Keep hoping that someone out there hears your call.
        2) Pay someone to “fix it”.
        3) Adopt the plugin yourself.
        4) Drop the plugin and find an alternative.
        5) Drop the plugin and learn to live without it.

        The reward/benefit from OSS is access to quality/free software – the responsibility of OSS is to implement a balance between “taking” and “giving” – this principle of “give and take” applies to personal as well as corporate users of OSS.

        (Apologies for the babbling)

        If I was in your shoes I would probably consider options ‘3’ and ‘4’. Have you checked out any of the alternatives?

        R

        PS. I will post this up on WP Forum as well

        • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

          Hi Robert,
          Thank you for the “babbling” (I call it good intentions and a true wish to talk :) )

          I am unsure as to how exactly what I will now write is in response to you, but I hope it will be.

          All that you have wrote I agree with, but please do notice option 6:
          Write about the subject in a known enough blog, and get the author (Wesley) to find out that his plugin was broken :D

          Also, the settings you present for OSS are all true, yet there is a big question that I am trying to open a discussion about. And that is: What can we do, in building our community, so that plugins will not be dependent only on their “parents”.
          Already the comments bellow us gave some more good points, and I am happy that this discussion is evolving and getting more people involved.

          The goal of this is not just one plugin, but a better understanding for all of us on how a community such as ours should be so we will all benefit more from it.

          Best,
          Tal

          • Robert@PNG (6 comments.) says:

            What can we do, in building our community, so that plugins will not be dependent only on their “parents”.

            Open Source projects need the contribution of many but will always rely on a “parent”. Eg: Linus Torvald still controls what does and what does not get included into the Linux Kernel.

            R

  2. Mark Beljaars (1 comments.) says:

    Wlt already attracts a lot of traffic from plugin developers. So why not create another news forum where users can submit plugins that no longer appear to work, appear orphaned or have not been updated in a long time. Authors could also submit to this forum asking for help from other authors or putting their own plugin up for adoption. Readers of the new forum could then offer to continue the task of developing the plugin.

    • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

      That’s a great idea I didn’t think about!
      Asking to add a “plugin forum”.

      Does anyone knows who we need to recommend this to ?

  3. Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

    Short update:
    It seems people started trying to solve the problem for “Improved Plugin Installation” in here:
    http://wordpress.org/support/t.....replies=10
    They started a solution but still need help.

    Thank you Mark for publishing this.

  4. Developer Overseas says:

    Well… one way to start dealing with old/new/current/past plugins is to make the repository at wordpress.org much better in the way we can browse and search. that will assist folks like me to better find gems. Yes, I do use Google now, but I want to be able to list, sort, and find all sort of nice things about plugins…

    I realize my response is not a direct answer to your question, but it is related.

  5. paul bearne (1 comments.) says:

    There is two bit of stats/infromation that would help here

    the ability for an author to mark a pluggin as not supported

    and for wordpress to release the count of the number of install pluggins

    Then a group of coders can addopt the must used un-supported pluggins and work down the list.

    Paul

    • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

      Paul –
      Good ideas.

      The one I wasn’t sure about is to release the count of the number of installed pluggins. I am not sure it is AUTOMATTIC which needs to give this number…

      Cheers,
      Tal

  6. iamronen (7 comments.) says:

    is this a local issue – with this plugin? could this be an indication of a weakness in the WordPress ecosystem?

  7. Otto (215 comments.) says:

    What is missing in our community that we do not adopt orphaned plugins?

    Developers who are using those plugins that are also capable of fixing them. I mean, I wouldn’t have any real incentive to fix a plugin I don’t use. Heck, I only generally write plugins when I need them myself, for my own purposes. I suspect a lot of plugin authors are the same way.

    • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

      Thanks Otto,
      So are you saying that there is nothing to do ?

      • Otto (215 comments.) says:

        What more is there do to? To solve the problem, you need to somehow get developers capable of fixing an orphan to do it.

        That’s the real problem: where do you get these developers and how do you give them the necessary incentives to support the plugin?

  8. Hikari (79 comments.) says:

    Very interesting subject, I’ve felt it too.

    I use 2 or 3 plugins that are officially dead, I even contacted one of these plugins author and offered to adopt it, but I still didn’t have time to see its code, and it is still working.

    There are also a few plugins I use, that are working and weren’t updated for quite some time.

    Your idea of an interface listing probably orphaned plugins is great. I’d add to it that original plugins should have a link to new ones. In exemple, if a plugin is dead and it is adopted, its page would automatically link to that new plugin. Because it’s worthless to have a plugin adopted if its users are not advised about it!

    Another solution would be authors to add messages requesting somebody to adopt their plugins. It is very common in Drupal community: modules authors add to their pages that they are still maintaining their modules, but they are looking for somebody to take it and keep it, and when they find somebody they go away. So, instead of just abandoning a plugin, when an author foresees he won’t be able/want to keep it anymore, he anounces it to the community and somebody else offers himself to adopt. Some automatic system where authors can flag their plugins and developers can see list of plugins being offered would also be nice.

  9. Wesley (13 comments.) says:

    Hi guys, I’m the developer of this plugin. There’s a bit of a backstory here as I had some chronic health issues which lead me to not update my site or any of my projects for a number of months.

    I have slowly returned to my regular routine in the past month or two and will update this plugin this week or the next. I had not yet gotten back to wordpress development and was unaware there was even an issue with this plugin. I will let you know as soon as it’s finished.. (@improvingtheweb on twitter)

    Of course, the discussion you have going on here is still very much valid, and there should indeed be some sort of plugin adoption mechanism.

    Wesley

    • Tal Galili (13 comments.) says:

      Dear Wesley,
      Thank you very much for your response.
      I was sorry to read about your health and wish you to get as well as possible and as soon as possible.

      Thank you also for updating us all about the backstory, I am now following you on twitter.

      Thank you also for your plugin, it amazed me how something so useful has gone so unnoticed by people in our community.

      All the best to you!
      Tal

  10. bubazoo (213 comments.) says:

    I don’t know, I think the current plugin installation system is fine just the way it is.

    How does your site remember what my name, mail, and website is every time I come back here? my blog doesn’t do that, and I’m the site owner. lol

    • joecr (20 comments.) says:

      It is likely a cookie that was set when you made your first post & has it’s time reset every time you post. Not sure more then that as that is all that I can think of for that to happen.

      I guess if it is a plugin or a setting that would be useful to know.

    • Jeff Chandler (171 comments.) says:

      It’s a conspiracy and commenting on any facts related to your question would put us both in hot water.

  11. Mark Barnes (1 comments.) says:

    It’s an interesting topic. I’ve written a few plugins, and although I support some, I’ve abandoned others. The reason? Support requirements are too intensive. After a plugin has been around a few months, it’s all too easy to spend more time answering support questions than coding. For most authors, that’s no fun. And it’s especially no fun if I don’t use the plugin myself any more. (Perhaps it was created for a friend, or a client. Perhaps it is simply no longer needed.)

    So that’s why some plugin authors abandon their plugins. So why don’t they get adopted? Let me ask a better question. Why should they? Why should I, as a coder, spend hours of my time trying to understand someone else’s code, fix the problem, and open myself up to dozens of support requests? It’s a genuine question. I’d be interested in your answer.

    • Hikari (79 comments.) says:

      Well Mark there are a few reasons to maintain a plugin, being it your own child or an adpted one.

      One of those is to have links to your site. Of course, if every WordPress user had a page listing all plugins he uses and linking to plugins pages, that would be great. I do that in my site at http://hikari.ws/plugins-love/ with the help of WP-PluginsUsed. If everybody did that, each site that used your plugin would link to you…

      Also, when I finally finish my plugins, they will have a few posts on my site and I’ll request people to use my site comments to post suggestions, report bugs, etc. It increases your site popularity.

      Another reason is, again, something I see in Drupal community. It is very common to see companies maintain modules there. They offer those modules for free, and doing so those companies advertize themselves. People that want a website with that kind of feature feel that those companies are good and pay them to develop their sites, administrate them, or to solve some kind of problem they are not being able to do alone.

      • Robert@PNG (6 comments.) says:

        Hikari,

        I’m all for your idea about giving something back to the plugin authors via way of links and mentions.

        Ever since I stumbled across WP just under two years ago I have always had a page dedicated to the plugins used. Other OSS software used (eg: Piwik and YOURLS) also get a mention.

        I have great admiration and feel a sense of gratitude to those plugin authors that give so freely of their energy and time.

        R

        Here’s my plugin dedication page: http://www.trupela.com/plugins/

      • iamronen (7 comments.) says:

        Hikari – Thanks for the tip on WP-PluginsUsed – just installed it and added a page.

      • Hikari (79 comments.) says:

        Cool, I didn’t expect to have ppl liking the plugins page idea :D

        I’m glad I helped somehow ^^

        A plugins page also helps us when we go to a site and see some feature we’d like to add to our own, but we don’t know which plugin implemented it. Normally we have to comment on that site asking how its owner did that, and hope him to reply. But with WP-PluginsUsed and a plugins page, we just need to see the list and find which plugin has that feature!

  12. Dana @ Online Knowledge (27 comments.) says:

    Yeah, i agree with you that the plugin makers should notice when their plugin in orphans. It is because i face many disappointment after install some plugin and there are no update any more for that plugin.So, it is will really help if the plugin can adopt by others.

  13. Bill Robbins (6 comments.) says:

    Plugins and themes are a large part of what makes our community function and so successful. But I really think the lack of updating that occurs exists because for most the community exists along the level of hobby. We enjoy our hobbies when we have time and resources to put in them, but when other obligations assert themselves, our hobbies are often left by the side.
    But most of us seem to find time to do our jobs because that’s how we survive financially. With plugins existing in the hobby sphere of life and not the substantial income part, we will keep seeing plugins and themes being left as orphans. This creates a market though for people who want to produce high quality plugins and will update them, support them and continue development in exchange for money. WordPress will most likely always have people willing to lend their expertise for free, but as more and more people and businesses come to depend on WordPress, themes and plugins for their sites, we can expect to see the market for premium plugins grow substantially.

    • Hikari (79 comments.) says:

      I agree with that.

      Unfortunately WordPress is generally seen as a blog engine, many ppl don’t even accept it as a CMS.

      There are many webdesign companies that use WordPress to manage sites that they develop, but their target public is ppl/other companies that knows nothing about websites, that wanna pay for simpler sites and leave them there.

      And when companies want more sofisticated sites, even more if they want some kind of community, they prefere ExpressionEngine, Drupal or even Joomla. The great majority of WordPress based sites are indeed blogs.

      We can see that in those sites that sell themes for many CMS. WordPress almost always has blogging oriented themes being sold, here and there we see some magazine-like theme.

  14. twincascos (1 comments.) says:

    Hi, great thread, I develop a lot of plugins and use many more.
    I have more than one discontinued plugin, I add to the readme file under description: this plugin is no longer supported nor will there be anymore development. I apologize and direct them to an alternative if I know of one.

    As for adopting an orphaned plugin. Well this is O.Source, any one can fork and adopt any piece as they like. If no one does, and a user still needs it. Well maybe it’s time to get out the credit card. I’ll reactivate a plugin if I’m able to, and if the user is able to pay.

    As for avoiding the dead plugin syndrome, chose your tools wisely. We all get caught up in grabbing the latest greatest toy. If you are going to be dependent on that tool, be prepared to invest. As for the Improved Plugin Installation plugin, great to see that it will be maintained, however your sites would go on without it, hardly mission critical.

    If anyone here wants to help with keeping plugins up to date, you could be pro active with the new Compatibility feature at wordpress.org/extend/plugins/. Pick a plugin, test it , rate it’s compatibility.

    Now, back to the endless stream of support questions..;-)

  15. kgraeme says:

    There are two kinds of plugin releases:

    1. A developer uses it as a showcase of their skills and a way to establish a professional portfolio of work and the plugin is released and maintained for the users of the community whom the developer sees as customers.

    These are regularly maintained and updated. Updates are generally driven by customer feature requests and/or a commitment to making the plugin a defacto “canonical” solution (to crib the new phrase).

    2. A developer solves a problem for their own or their business’ needs and is willing to share with the idea that someone may also find it useful.

    These are rarely upgraded, usually only when the developer finds a problem in their own environment which needed a fix. They were never intended as polished solutions for the community, but more as code sample contributions for other developers to build upon if desired.

    Often, community requests for help or features are annoyances since the code does what the developer needs and pestering from the community leeches who can’t even read php aren’t worth the time of day.

    In my opinion, both are valuable to the community. The second version isn’t necessarily “hobby” code. We’ve released plugins like this simply because there was a vacuum of alternatives. And even if the code is “abandoned”, it is still of use to other developers. It’s just not useful to people looking for commercial grade software for free.

    And there’s the crux. In my opinion, the GPL lends itself quite nicely to approach #2 and rather poorly to approach #1. That’s not a critique of the GPL, but people seem to expect that all open source projects should also be treated and maintained as if they were commercial software. And that’s not the intent of all developers when they share their code.

    • Hikari (79 comments.) says:

      That’s not a critique of the GPL, but people seem to expect that all open source projects should also be treated and maintained as if they were commercial software. And that’s not the intent of all developers when they share their code.

      I agree in part with you, but not in the part that GPL is the cause.

      Well, there are also commercial software that are poorly maintained, that you’d pay and never have a bug fixed. I know a couple of apps that I love and are still bugged under Vista, and Win7 is already released… You must pay for it and only have 1 year of updates. When a new version is released you must pay again, and they remain with no updates for more than 1 year…

      Well, I have a Travian tweak program publicly released. Just after it was released I abandoned the game for lack of time, and didn’t do anything else on the code since then. It was working when I stopped, and I’ll go back maintain it and build a manual, but only when I have the time…

      I agree with you regarding commercial x hobby software. When we are able to profit from our software, we want it to grow and be popular, but when we use our free time to solve our own needs, users can’t expect us to spend even more time helping them, they must do as we did and help US, who had the idea and implemented it. Or at least pay for it.

      GPL is not the cause because it can be used and still profit. See Thematic for exemple, that is released opensource and free, and there are commercial themes based on it, and its site suggests developers that will solve users needs. And of course they pay for being listed on Thematic site and donate so that it is maintained. Probably they also have priority on some feature they need, etc.

      That’s good for Thematic developers that are free from commercial problems and still profit, they have a community to help them, and commercial “partners” don’t have to do all the work keeping a versatible theme, which reduces their costs.

  16. Wesley (13 comments.) says:

    I’ve just updated the plugin, a new version of “Improved Plugin Installation” is now available and should work in WordPress 2.8 (and 2.9 beta).

    See this post to read why it’s taken so long: http://www.improvingtheweb.com/im-finally-back/

  17. Leanne King (1 comments.) says:

    I wrote a post about this problem a while ago here: http://www.wpqueen.com/wordpre.....ugins-die/

    I don’t know what the answer is but I think that there does have to be more reward the hard work that developers put in to plugins.

  18. Sam (1 comments.) says:

    I think it’s because that the creators of these plugins obtain notoriety and become well-known in the development community. Then, they network and are able to get high-paying jobs that make them leave the open-source world. Why do it for free when you can get paid to do it?

  19. Nurul Azis (16 comments.) says:

    For me as an end user, I really love the feature of one click installation of a plugin. I don’t really think what happen actually back there in the making and marketing of other plugins.



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