August 2020 Newsletter

Background

As mentioned in the April newsletter, WordPress 5.4 was officially released on March 31st, 2020. There have since been two maintenance releases, resolving security flaws, fixing various bugs and introducing a couple of enhancements: 5.4.1 came out on April 29th, 2020; and 5.4.2 on June 10th, 2020.

This newsletter primarily summarises WordPress 5.5 which was released on August 11th, 2020. See the official WordPress 5.5 release post for more detailed information or the WordPress 5.5 field guide if you are looking for something that is slightly more technical.

WordPress 5.5

Versions 7.5 to 8.4 of the Gutenberg project (alias the block editor project) have been included in this release. The main features are described below.

The block editor user interface continues to be refined. It includes: further use of colour in an increasing number of blocks; control of the font size in various blocks; the introduction of some inline image editing facilities; copy / relocate blocks more easily; refined drag and drop mechanism; multiple-block selection; and extended use of HTML anchors. Two new features have been introduced under the title of block tools: some blocks, notably the paragraph block, will have a line height option; and the cover block will have a custom unit option to control its size.

Note – HTML anchors allow you to specify a link which takes the user to a specified place within a post or page, as opposed to the beginning. An anchor was limited to a heading block, heading level two only if my memory serves me correctly. It has now been extended to other blocks, e.g. paragraph blocks.

XML sitemaps have been introduced to make it easier for search engines to crawl the content of a site comprehensively and quickly.

Auto-updating of themes and plug-ins. It is now possible for WordPress.org users to set up their sites to allow these updates to be performed automatically. Control can be exercised at the level of an individual theme or plug-in.

Lazy-loading of images means that they will happen only when the user nears them on the page or post. On a long page or post the user may not actually reach some images, which therefore will not need to be loaded, resulting in a bandwidth saving / performance improvement.

The block directory has been introduced which allows WordPress.org users access to individual third-party blocks. Before version 5.5, sets of blocks were stored in the plug-in directory. A complete set of blocks had to be downloaded even if you only wanted one of them. The new block directory now allows you to access only the block(s) that you want.

Block patterns have been announced although they have been present on my version of WordPress.com for a number of months! Block patterns make use of the group block feature to construct more complex, ready-made blocks which can be inserted into your page or post and subsequently modified. A limited number of such pre-built patterns are available for use. This may (or may not) be an initial step towards giving WordPress a true page-building facility.

Preview. It is now possible in the editor to see how your page or post will look on a desktop, tablet or mobile device. Once again, this feature has actually been available on my version of WordPress.com for several months.

Accessibility improvements are part of an ongoing project. There are 34 updates in this release. See the field guide for further details.

Collaboration Software

Automattic, the owner of WordPress.com, has been using P2, a home- built piece of software, to allow electronic collaboration between developers for sometime. They are now making a beta version of it available to WordPress.com users. If you are interested then read this blog in the first instance.

What is next?

It is difficult to be precise about what will be in version 5.6 of WordPress, which is due out in December, 2020. Various projects are simultaneously in progress, but it remains to be seen which of them will be considered ready to be released in the next version.

Navigation blocks (alias menus to you and me) and widget blocks were both due to appear in 5.5. However, they were pulled from the release late on. Perhaps they will make it into 5.6?

Accessibility improvements will continue to appear, and there will no doubt be an assortment of other refinements and enhancements.

Another major project that is currently in progress is Full Site Editing (FSE). It is in its infancy at the moment, and so it is not totally clear how the detailed design will look. However, it can be said that in the FSE world everything will be a block. So, not just the content, as at present. Headers, menus, footers, sidebars et cetera will also be implemented as blocks. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that an outline of the site will be displayed on the screen. Clicking on a particular area of this outline will take you into the relevant editing process. I am sure that it will all be much more complex than my one line description makes out! I consider that FSE is likely to appear sometime in 2021, i.e. it is extremely unlikely to be in 5.6. Have a look at this useful article in wpengine to gain a better understanding of the background to FSE and the general direction of travel.