WordPress, Themes & Plugins – what does ‘free’ really mean?

If you’re new to WordPress and the world of Open Source, it’s good to reflect on the meaning of ‘free’ when it comes to software.

What is Open Source?

The open source logo with a green semi-circle and text

Open Source is not a synonym for ‘free’ although most open source software is free. Open Source is a model for the creation and development of a range of things, not just software. It is essentially about collaboration rather than competition, combining skills and resource to produce and develop a product that is legally ‘open’. You can read more about it on Wikipedia and How Stuff Works.

WordPress is Great

WordPress is Great

WordPress is free, open source software that is widely used with a global developer base.

WordPress comes packaged with a default theme and a few plugins. Often users will choose from the many themes and plugins available to create a site with the look and functionality that suits their purpose.

It all seems almost too good to be true – a great platform, an endless supply of great themes and plugins – all for free. Christmas – all year round.

But then again, when it comes to the world wide web we’re getting used to lots of ‘free’ stuff.

Caveat Utilitor

a crows of angry romans riotingThe other side to free stuff is, of course, that it generally comes without guarantees. No guarantee that it will work as it should, no guarantee that it won’t break something else, no guarantee that it will be supported or continued.

That’s not to say that free open source software is of poor quality. Open source is frequently better than many of its proprietary equivalents. The popularity and growth of WordPress itself is testimony to that.

What it does mean is that when it comes to themes and plugins – take some time, choose wisely and be prepared to spend time trouble shooting or pay someone else to.

OK, Tell me Straight Up

There are thousands of plugins in the WordPress repository. Some are great and have been downloaded millions of times, some are not so great and will break your WordPress installation. Some are complicated, some are very simple. Some start strong and fade. Many are no longer supported.

Given that there are tens of millions of self-hosted WordPress sites on the net (see also WordPress.com) the hours spent troubleshooting plugins must run into the millions per year. It would be a similar story for WordPress themes.

Build me a Website with Plugins Free

An Engineer from the 60's with equipment

If you’ve had a WordPress powered website built for you, your developer will have used plugins. Despite choosing the best available at the time and whether free or not, they need maintaining and may need replacing.

Your developer is not selling you the plugins or themes, nor can she guarantee them. Plugins and themes are third party items over which they usually have no control.

Maintaining means updating and watching for update & incompatibility issues which sometimes break things. A plugin may need to be replaced if the author decides they will no longer develop that plugin and no one else takes it over. As time goes on, unsupported plugins may fail or cause issues as the WordPress core files evolve & improve.

Given the uncertain nature of themes and plugins, you will need to be clear on the support arrangement you have. Unless there is some maintenance contract, keeping plugins updated and even troubleshooting will be something you will have to do yourself.

Give a Little Bit

A Bag with 'Goodwill we can use it" written on it

The thing about free stuff is it’s not really free. When you use a ‘free’ theme or plugin you’re enjoying the result of tens, maybe hundreds of hours work.

Why not give something back and give a plugin or theme author a donation? A bit of love makes the world go ’round. Developers have to eat and pay the mortgage and are generally not part of multi-billion dollar corporations which give you other ‘free’ internet stuff.

So ‘free’ is a relative term when it comes to software It cost somebody to build it, and it will cost you time and/or money to make something out of it and keep it running. Choose wisely and spread good karma by giving back and the world will be a better place.

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