Reyes Martínez directs Digital Marketing and Communications at Frontity. She gave us some background and answered a few of our questions about the company and the project.
Previously known as Worona, Madrid-based Frontity is close to launching their eponymous public beta, described on Github as both “an alternative rendering engine for WordPress,” and “a React framework to create WordPress themes.” Frontity, the framework, runs separately from WordPress on Node.js and uses the WordPress API to generate HTML and AMP pages. Unlike other approaches to “headless” WordPress, Frontity is the first to be built exclusively for WordPress.
PS: Can you give us an overview of Frontity's history and how your company, product, and brand has developed?
RM: It all started back in 2015 when Pablo Postigo and Luis Herranz created Worona, a free WordPress plugin to turn blogs into mobile apps. Pablo and Luis discovered a lot of people were concerned about the way their WordPress sites performed on mobile devices. They thought it would be a powerful solution to build an open source platform that could be extended by other WordPress developers.
I met Pablo and Luis in late 2015, loved their project and joined them. I was used to working with WordPress as a content editor, but I didn’t have a technical background. So I mostly started helping by writing blog posts, social media content, documentation, and providing user support. Now I’m in charge of Frontity’s marketing and communications. (I still don’t code but would love to learn at some point!)
After that first prototype, they decided to develop a free platform not just for creating mobile apps. The idea was that any WordPress user could build mobile apps, progressive web apps, or add Google AMP to their blogs in a very easy way. This was Worona 1.0, which was launched in February of 2017. Thousands of WordPress users joined that journey, and we’re truly thankful for that. At that time we already used React and fetched the blog’s content using WordPress's REST API. The mobile apps were created with Cordova.
Although Worona had a loyal following, we were aware that mobile app usage was slowly declining. People don’t want to download an app for every blog they read. Plus, Apple stopped supporting apps from app generation platforms like ours. This became a serious problem as we couldn’t grow under that scenario.
That’s when we decided to bet on the mobile web and started working on a new framework for building Progressive Web App themes (based on React) on top of WordPress. In 2018 we rebranded to Frontity and got financial backing to make the project grow. Although our main goal was to keep the code open source, we decided to use it internally and release a product exclusively to WordPress publishers (we called it Frontity PRO), so we could see what happened and gather feedback.
Frontity PRO is a proprietary mobile theme built on React for WordPress blogs and news sites. It implements Progressive Web App technologies and uses the REST API to fetch the content, along with our WordPress plugin, WordPress PWA.
By the time Frontity PRO was created, we also contributed to the official WCEU PWA. Building a PWA from the ground up is a difficult and time-consuming task, but we had created a framework to precisely solve that problem. It was the perfect time to test it out and give back to the community.
We have worked with Spanish media companies since we launched Frontity PRO, and the result has been great. Our theme has allowed them to deliver faster and more engaging mobile experiences, which has been proven to increase their pageviews and ad revenue. Our internal framework has served content to more than 20 million readers. Some of our major clients were part of ADSLZone group. Others include Medios y Redes, Tendenzias or Coches.com. They all use WordPress.
During this time, we realized that many of our clients' tech teams were considering using our framework to develop their own custom themes. This was one of the main reasons that made us think about open sourcing it — it seemed the perfect moment. Plus, this was our original vision.
A few months ago, we finally decided to go straight for that vision. We set aside the development work of Frontity PRO to place all our focus on Frontity.org, the open source framework. Our next milestone is to release the first beta version in the next few weeks. (Early May 2019.) More than 300 developers have already signed up to try it out. We are really excited about this project and believe it can make a real impact in the WordPress ecosystem.
Since our resources are limited, we are looking for some financial backing again to bring contributors on board and build a thriving community of people interested in WordPress and React.
PS: What problems does Frontity solve? (And whose problems are they?) Will Frontity make frontend development more accessible to people who are new to React?
RM: In order to create a WordPress theme with React, developers need to learn and configure lots of different things: bundling, transpiling, routing, server rendering, retrieving data from WordPress, managing state, managing CSS, linting, testing,…
There are already some amazing React frameworks, such as Next.js and GatsbyJS, that can work with WordPress, but they're not focused exclusively on it. As a result, there's still some complex configuration and additional tooling left to the developer.
This is what Frontity aims to solve; we want to make everything much simpler for WordPress developers and more accessible to those who are new to React. Each part of the framework has been simplified and optimized to be used with WordPress, and developers don't need to figure out what tools to use for things like CSS or state management.
Everything is ready so they can get WordPress and React to work together in an easier way.
How does Frontity differ from Genesis, _s, or WP Rig — from the developer and designer's perspective, and in the end user's experience?
RM: Genesis, _s or WP Rig are fantastic frameworks to develop WordPress themes based on PHP. These themes use the PHP WordPress rendering engine, which means they rely on a server-side architecture where almost every interaction that is made by the user on his device needs to wait for the server to render the new result. Our framework is focused on developers who want to create a React frontend and connect it to a WordPress backend using the REST API. We can call this a client-side architecture, where all the logic and rendering happen directly on the device and the calls to the server are limited only to data sourcing.
In the last few years, web development has evolved a lot. One of the main reasons is the shift to mobile devices and the need for fast web experiences. Achieving this is not easy using a server-side architecture. This is why client-side libraries like React are becoming so popular.
How does Frontity the framework fit into a business model or revenue stream for Frontity the company?
RM: We won't develop any business model in this initial phase. The framework will always be 100% free and open source. Right now, we are focused on building a community of developers and contributors around the framework.
Possible monetizations in the future are a hosting solution, premium support, or a marketplace of paid themes.
What opportunities do you see for WordPress developers now and in the near future?
RM: With the shift to Gutenberg as well as the rise of headless CMS approaches, the WordPress community has started considering React for their projects. Beside this, modern libraries like React are becoming essential to rich user experiences.
The client-side approach to theme-building opens a world of new possibilities: storing and pre-fetching content, animations within themes, offline experiences, and more. It also has enormous benefits in terms of performance, UX and design.
React presents an opportunity to accelerate things in the WordPress ecosystem, build modern and engaging frontend experiences, and extend what developers can do with this powerful CMS.
Pictured in the Frontity team photo above, from left to right, back row first: Eduardo Campaña (developer), David Arenas (developer), Carmen Fernández (no longer with the company), Mario Santos, (Community), Reyes Martínez (Marketing & Communications), Pablo Postigo (Founder & CEO), and Luis Herranz (Founder & Lead developer).