November 2019 Newsletter

WordPress Version 5.2 was launched back in May 2019. Three minor versions (5.2.1 through to 5.2.3) subsequently followed at intervals, consisting mainly of bug fixes with the occasional enhancement. 5.2.4, a security fix release, appeared a month ago.

The latest major version, 5.3, has just been made available to WordPress.org users on November 12th, 2019. It will follow shortly to WordPress.com users. The main focus of this release is to polish current interactions and to make the user interface more friendly. A new theme, Twenty Twenty, is included in the release.

The Release blog contains an overview of what is included in WordPress 5.3, while more technical information can be found in the WordPress 5.3 Field Guide.

New Features in the Block Editor

Development continues with new versions appearing every fortnight as Gutenberg plugins (Gutenberg being the project name). Gutenberg versions 5.4 through to 6.5 have been incorporated into WordPress 5.3, along with bug fixes and performance enhancements in 6.6 and 6.7  Changes include:

  • Improved handling of large images which have been uploaded via a camera. WordPress will now reduce the size of big images to a default of 2560 pixels.
  • The cover block now supports a greater range of nested blocks. It also has a resizing option and the ability to have a solid colour background, as an alternative to an image.
  • The group block supports the concept of nested blocks.  A group can be saved as a reusable block.
  • The columns block includes various improvements: up to 7 columns in a block; the ability to size individual columns; and support for colour. 
  • Typewriter experience keeps the user’s place on the screen by automatically scrolling down appropriately as he types, thus avoiding the problem of typing right at the bottom of the screen, or even worse beyond the bottom when you cannot see what you are typing.
  • A Social Links block has been introduced
  • Widgets. There are now 9 widget blocks which can be incorporated into the main content area of a page or post: calendar, latest posts, categories, search, shortcode, archives, latest comments, RSS and tag cloud. The idea of legacy widgets in blocks which was being mooted appears to have been dropped.

Other Changes

Site admin email verification. This new screen will be displayed once every 6 months. It has been introduced because of problems where sites do not keep this email address up to date, resulting in important emails not being delivered to the current site admin.

Page templates. I have recently discovered on my WordPress.com account which runs the block editor that “add new page” now produces a display of various possible page templates that can be used. As I am not interested in any of them, I simply select the blank template.

Discouraging search engines. The method employed to keep a site secret, where this was required by the site owner, was only moderately successful. A change has been made to make it more likely that search engines will not display such sites.

Improved date / time component handling.

Site Health Check (WordPress.org users). Further features have been added.

PHP Support (WordPress.org users). PHP 7.4, which is due out shortly, will be supported.

Fixes. WordPress version 5.3 includes a lot of bug fixes and minor changes, generally making the product more reliable, while ironing out some of the idiosyncrasies.

Accessibility improvements for WordPress users. There are 50 updates in this area, including improved media controls, darker field borders and improved button styles.

My experiences with the block editor

I have been using the new block editor on my own website (bkthisandthat.org.uk) and on several other sites since January 2019. I have discovered a couple of minor bugs which I have reported, but I have generally found it to be stable.

My only concern at the present time is with tables. Before the block editor the user had to handcraft HTML tables. There is now a table block. However, HTML tables with empty cells or images will not convert correctly to a table block. The table block itself is somewhat rudimentary. In particular, it does not allow column widths to be specified, nor does it allow an image in a table cell.

I have dabbled with the media and text block and with the columns block. Neither is perfect at the current time. The media and text block does not appear to adhere to the margins that are used in the theme, at least not in my theme. The columns block is just about usable.

What will be next?

Gutenberg development has four phases:

  • the block editor
  • customisation
  • collaboration, allowing multiple users to co-edit content in real time
  • multilingual

Phase two (customisation) is currently in progress which includes headers, footers, menus and sidebars. A proposed design under the umbrella title of “full site editing” was put forward in September where these various elements, as well as the main content section, are each called block areas. The block editor would be able to display all block areas, just as a post or page might appear on the screen, and to work on any of them. Alternatively, a specified block area could be displayed on its own and worked on. At a very rough guess, it is likely to be mid-2020 before such a major change appears, always assuming that the idea is carried forward.

Auto-updating old versions (WordPress.org users). WordPress supplies security fixes back as far back as version 3.7, which was launched in October 2013. However, the effort required to support these old versions is an ever-growing problem. It is now proposed that, unless they deliberately opt out, old WordPress.org sites will be automatically updated (one version at a time) until they are on version 4.7. There has been much animated debate on this subject. It remains to be seen if the proposal will be adopted.