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WordPress 3.6 More of the Same, Only Better

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The next major update to WordPress is just around the corner, but if you’re worried that big changes are coming, don’t. WordPress 3.6 is a solid update with only improvements to this powerful CMS. Most of the updates in WordPress 3.6 are “under the hood” and just make WordPress faster and more stable, but there are a few great new touches for users of all levels.

The new version of WordPressWordPress 3.6—came out in August, 2013, and although folks treat a new version of WordPress with trepidation, like the past several WP updates, you have nothing to fear and everything to gain with this update. WordPress turned 10 years old this year and this, in software terms, means that WP is a mature product. Large improvements or changes aren’t likely because the huge (millions of sites across the Internet) install base that WordPress enjoys could be thrown into chaos if a new feature winds up causing headaches (Windows 8 anyone?).

Does this mean there’s nothing new in WordPress 3.6 "Oscar"? Not at all. There are some fantastic fixes and refinements that can help bloggers and site owners across the board. Let’s delve into the big new things and what they mean for the average user.

Better Auto Post Saving, File Locking, and Revisions

If you’ve ever had your browser crash, accidentally closed the browser tab in WordPress, or suddenly lose your Internet connection, you know the stomach-dropping feeling that you just lost your post. Well, WP 3.6 has made that much less likely with local storage of posts while you work on them. No, you can’t work on your post offline (that’s what blog editors are for), but if you go offline all of a sudden, your post won’t be lost.

For those of us who often have to work on posts with other people, WP can both make sure that people can’t edit a post while you work on it and that you can kick a user out of a post who left the post open (and went away).

Speaking of revising posts, WP included basic change tracking some time ago, and in WP 3.6 post revisions have received some attention and polish, so you can better compare post versions. The feature isn’t up to the level of tracking changing in Word, but it’s certainly a good start.

Post Statuses...Going Beyond Just Draft or Published

More sites now need a modicum of an approvals process to ensure that post quality is top notch. In previous versions of WordPress, there wasn’t a lot of flexibility for editors (the general role, not role within WP) to see what needed reviewing and what was being actively worked on. WP 3.6 now has better support for post status that includes support for types like In Progress, Needs Review, and other standard publishing statuses. This feature, however, isn’t going to be the same for every WP 3.6 install you come across—this feature is theme-dependent, and theme developers need to build these types into their themes.

However, what this does do is pave the way for powerful themes and plugins that can bring a modicum of editorial workflow into WordPress. Editors of large sites should be jumping for joy over this.

Post Formats: Standardized and Improved

Post formats (for example, Asides, Quotes, Videos, and so on) are a theme-base part of WordPress that brought some Tumblr-esque features into our favorite CMS. In 3.6 Post Formats went through a fine-tuning to make adding them to themes easier for developers and a little easier for users to find and select in the Post editor. What’s missing? The new Post Formats interface (UI).

In the 3.6 roadmap, there was a section of updating the Post editor so that it would be easier (and look better) to choose different Post Formats while you were editing a post. Unfortunately, during the development of 3.6, the developers couldn’t reach a consensus on what that should look like, so the feature was dropped from 3.6. Are you going to miss it? Probably not. At least not right away. I think that when more theme developers release themes using Post Formats with cool features, more of us will use Post Formats. When more people use Post Formats, the WordPress development team will have a better idea—and user base—to test new interfaces and layouts in the Editor.

Audio and Video Players Built In: No Plugin Needed!

In the past, if you wanted to upload podcasts or videos to your WordPress site (and not use YouTube or Podbean to host the files for you) and allow readers to listen or watch your content without needing to download the files (essentially how you expect to see videos and audio in posts…embedded and playable), you needed a plugin to pull that off. Not a big deal to download and install any one of a myriad audio or video player plugins, except that these player plugins often get out of sync with WordPress, were sometimes difficult to set up, and added extra load time to sites that used them. (Remember almost every plugin you use will add a little extra load time to your site.)

Well, I’m happy to say that with WordPress 3.6 those days are over. Instead of the media tool just creating a link to the video or podcast, there is a native, built-in media player that WordPress will use to embed the file and make it playable in the post.

This will be a huge boon to people who sell their audio and video content (through members-only sections), podcasters, and video bloggers. Now it will be just simple and easy to let visitors enjoy your content.

Menus Make More Sense

When Menus were introduced in version 3.0 (which seems so long ago now), this single feature helped make WordPress a real tool for developing websites. Menus were easy to use, easy to configure, easy to update, but not quite perfect.

In 3.6 the Menus section has received some much needed attention with an updated layout that enables you to see on one tab all the menu locations your theme supports and also within the menu editor to apply that menu to the right section (without needing to see and remember the location section off to the side).

New capabilities? Sorry, not really. There is better support for Post Formats and a few nice UI touches, but major overhaul of how Menus work? Sorry. However, don’t think of this as Menus are stagnating, rather consider that after all these years the biggest thing Menus needed was a little interface touch-up, not feature changes. Menus were “done right” the first time, so the only things that’s needed now are little fixes to make the feature better.

New Theme: Twenty Thirteen

Twenty Thirteen was released a while ago, but with WordPress 3.6 it is one of the new default themes included (along with Twenty Twelve). Twenty Thirteen has gone into a new style direction with bold colors, no sidebars, and a focus on Post Formats. As always, this new theme is designed to be a “showcase” theme with all the big features of WordPress, but it’s also a parent theme as well, so you can build new themes on top of it (either minor custom work or whole new themes with their own suite of features).

I have to be honest: The header images included in the new theme aren’t my cup of tea (not by a long shot, I remember the 1970s; those weren’t great times for fashion or color choice), but the layout and typography are quite excellent.

Twenty Thirteen also harkens back to the roots of WordPress…blogging and writing. This theme isn’t intended to become the foundation of a “website,” rather it’s intended to support the individual blogger/writer with lots of Post Formats with unique styles, easy-to-read layouts, and a focus on content rather than space for sidebars and other “website” features.

If you put the garish headers aside and replace them with your own right away, I think many bloggers would be happy to use Twenty Thirteen for their blog.

Continuous, Steady Improvement

Like the past several WordPress releases, WordPress 3.6 is less about new features and more about refining and improving the engine. A lot of the changes in the code for load times and stability will go unnoticed by almost everyone, but they are there and welcome. WordPress has become a mature product. It’s 10 years old this year and with millions and millions of sites running on (and depending on) WordPress for their web presence, don’t expect major, ground-breaking new features for some time (if ever again). It’s not that WordPress is stagnant, it’s that it’s a mature tool with nearly all major (and minor) features included. From this point on, just expect WordPress to become easier to use, faster at loading websites, and keeping up with new web technologies.

And given how many of us rely on WordPress working day in and day out, that’s a good thing indeed.

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