Automattic is testing the ability for Business plan customers to upload custom plugins and themes on WordPress.com.
The test has only been open a few days, and they are enabling the feature for around 10 sites per day, so it's a very, very soft launch. But if it goes well, one can presume the feature will likely roll out to all Business plans eventually.
A Business plan on WordPress.com costs $299 per year — the same price for the top Business plan of Jetpack on self-hosted sites.
And the two products — Jetpack on a self-hosted site, or WordPress.com business plans — are about to look a lot alike. With this move, WordPress.com is basically playing the role of restricted host, rather than tightly controlled platform.
David Kennedy described it like this on a private blog post:
Starting today, we're quietly soft-launching a new feature of the WordPress.com Business plan. It brings the best of both worlds to our users: the carefree ease of a managed platform, plus the ability to install custom themes and plugins.
The post was not intended to be public yet, and indeed included a warning to readers not to share the news yet, and it is a significant change for the platform which thus far has restricted this level of control to VIP customers that pay $5,000+ per month.
Assuming there is no limitation to bandwidth allowed — the new WordPress.com Business plan, if it moves forward — could eat both into the existing WordPress.com VIP market, as well as the broader managed hosting market.
Averaged out to around $24 per month, it's a very affordable plan. It also adds to the blurring of the lines between WordPress.com and WordPress.org, a point of consistent contention in the community for many years.
From a strictly business sense, the Business plan with these features is compelling, and could prove to be a big motivator to prevent customers on WordPress.com from “growing out” of the platform — a big potential gain on life time value for the most engaged and successful customers.
It also makes WordPress.com's decision to put a “Plugins” tab on the editor come into better view. Until now, the tab went to a Jetpack configuration page. Between the ability to enable custom plugins, and Matt Mullenweg's insistence on a future where Calypso is “plugin aware”, it makes the whole thing make a bit more sense.
In terms of infrastructure, I don't know if this version of WordPress.com is on the VIP Go platform, or perhaps on an altered Pressable setup, or (unlikely) classic WordPress.com. I presume it's on the same infrastructure as VIP Go, as it's the closest comparison. And I'd be really surprised if Automattic suddenly started letting people upload custom code to their primary platform without significant review, unless they've had security improvements to better isolate each customer's accounts.
For folks who like to see a clear line between .org and .com, this move will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire. And it's right on the heals of Automattic basically putting a stake in the ground of the theme marketplace landscape, adding 165 themes to Jetpack.
I've reached out to Automattic to learn more. Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that while this is a pretty big change for them, it's just a test, and it's not guaranteed to stay. I'll let you know what else I learn in the coming days.