The responsibility of a plugin provider

The economics of WordPress are tricky. There have been many free plugins that have gained popularity, with demanding users requesting free support, and the plugin author eventually just lets it all go. It's completely understandable. We shouldn't expect something for nothing, no matter how popular the plugin is.

When it gets complicated is when the plugin author starts charging for upsells, and marketing those upsells in the free plugin. What's the responsibility of the plugin author now? We've seen many businesses get built with this model: free plugin gets popular, author introduces pro version or commercial support or some monetization strategy.

But even still, the new strategy may not be enough to make the economics work. Maybe the support costs are still too high. Maybe the author loses interest in the product as they've moved on to other things. What now?

I'm sure this isn't that uncommon. But I'm assuming it is relatively uncommon for plugins that are really big, like with over a million active installs. It's been the case with W3 Total Cache for several years now.

Jeff at WP Tavern wrote up how W3 Total Cache is not abandoned, however, there is a good bit of evidence from chagrined customers that the service for the commercial version has been sub-par at best. Beyond that, the plugin was actively breaking on WordPress 4.4 installs due to its lack of compatibility with the new responsive images feature. An update the other day was to signify that the plugin is now compatible up to version 4.5, which doesn't appear to be actually true.

I understand from a commenter on the WP Tavern post and another source that the Github for W3TC has been active. I presume that means that the Github for the pro version is active, as the public version has not had significant code updates in many months, and the plugin author is not engaging with the core team and plugin repo administrators who have been willing to help.

This raises questions of what is the responsibility of a plugin author of a popular free plugin, and what should the plugin repo team do with unresponsive authors?

The responsibility for a commercial plugin provider is more obvious. The situation with W3Tc should therefore be separated between the free version and the commercial version issues.

I have no sympathy for Frederick Townes in regard to the commercial plugin complaints. If he continues to promote the commercial version, yet fails to perform the services he promises, then he deserves to get called out. The comments from folks like Philip Arthur Moore and Mike McAlister are quite damning. I trust both of these folks, and they wouldn't complain about something unless it was a real problem. I believe that if they are speaking out, there are probably many more who are truly affected. Frederick should fix the issues he's having delivering on promises with the commercial plugin, make it right with those folks they've done wrong, and if they can't fix the issues then they should stop promoting the product — period.

As for the free product, I can certainly sympathize. Frederick is a co-founder and executive with a service called Placester — a company that's raised $50 million. I highly doubt W3TC is a priority for him these days. That's fine. It's perfectly normal for free plugins to fall by the wayside, though it's unfortunate when they are as broadly used as his.

However, I think it's the role of the WordPress plugin repo team to step in when a free plugin is causing considerable issues. I've been told by Mika Ipstein — the plugin team member that contacted W3 Edge — that it's not uncommon for plugin authors to respond to initial inquiries and then not follow through with promised updates (like happened with W3TC). I would like to see the team empowered to make changes to plugins themselves when the plugins are this big and causing an issue like breaking compatibility with a major release of WordPress.

This is also the kind of situation where — if the plugin were less valuable (due to a huge user base) — the relatively new plugin adoption system could come into play. I'm sure plenty of folks would be willing to adopt W3TC. But in a situation where the plugin is this popular, I doubt the author would agree to adoption, because they have the option of acquisition.

A situation like this is also why the freemium structure of many WordPress plugins is… complicated. It's not good for WordPress for the free version of one of its most used plugins to appear abandoned. At the same time, figuring out a fair path forward is difficult.

I'd love to see Frederick and his team at W3 Edge right the ship with W3 Total Cache. The plugin has served a lot of folks well over the years, and offering consistent updates for a big plugin for the long term is super difficult. I'd like to see proper compatibility fixes on the free version, and for the commercial version to become sustainable. I think we should be careful playing judge and jury to free plugin authors. But when they start monetizing the plugin, the paid-for services are fair game for scrutiny.

And in addition to all of this, a little open communication goes a long way. It's the first thing I would tell Frederick with the opportunity to do so.

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