Blurring the Lines Between Themes and Plugins

One of the things I have been noticing lately regarding WordPress themes is how many features they are now incorporating. It seems that themes are trying to make up for the lack of built-in features that a large user-base seems to want. Things as simple as uploading header and background images, or as complex as showing blocks of text to only search engine visitors are quickly becoming common in premium, paid and free WordPress themes.

People seem to expect more and more that WordPress themes are going to take on the onus of managing features that were once plugins.

In recently releasing my own WordPress theme, WPUnlimited, I have integrated many of the things I use every day into the core of the theme, making sure that as WordPress is upgraded, there won’t be a delay waiting for a plugin author to get around to dealing with any one plugin that I need. It is all contained with a theme, which makes things both more simple, and provides more pressure to keep it at the cutting edge.

I have been asking myself if it makes sense to continue to blur the lines. Will WordPress themes build in so many features that people don’t need, thus contributing to the bloat that people say WordPress already inherently has? Should designers, and theme developers take on the responsibility of making sure features that were once relegated to plugins work?

There is something to be said for being able to quickly, and easily integrate and use features without editing PHP code, worrying about opening up theme files, and trying to figure out where to place function calls, or code snippets.

I, personally, like not having to do such things, and I think that one issue that the WordPress project community tried to fix was the issue of having to code things, by using widgets, but widgets aren’t the answer for everything, and there are still a number of people unable to edit their WordPress theme effectively cutting them off from a wide variety of plugins that would fulfill their needs.

Should the WordPress project be to blame for not providing enough built-in default theme hooks for plugin authors to take advantage of? Or the plugin authors for not finding ways to make using their plugins in an easier way? Or should WordPress theme authors, do as I did, and integrate as many features as possible into their themes, taking on the onus of not only developing a theme, but the most popular features that WordPress bloggers expect?

And if so, then where does the line get drawn? How many features should be packed into a WordPress theme, before stopping and relegating them to being plugins instead?

How have other communities separated the need for features to work with designs and the core of the blogging software or CMS?

  1. By Ryan Imel posted on February 26, 2009 at 3:08 am
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    You hit the nail on the head. The reason theme options are so popular is that site owners want to be able to make modifications (be it a color scheme or social system integration) without having to edit code. This is especially true for those who don’t know how to edit the code themselves.

    One key thing to remember is that themes will add extra functionality only to the extent that it makes sense for their theme. Not every added function / option is going to make sense for every single theme. It’s only going to be the relevant things. For a life stream theme, it’s going to be social integration options. But for a more simplified personal theme, it might only have some color scheme options. It really depends on the scope of the theme.

    Thanks for getting me thinking, David. And good luck with WPUnlimited!

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