I was not surprised to see the backlash to Auto Updates. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to explain to people that while you can disable it, we really, really, really, really, don’t want you to, and basically ended up with a Codex page that explained how to configure it and then Nacin’s followup post that is, indeed, the definitive guide to disabling updates. But people hate it or love it, and there’s no middle ground. This was, as I implied, somewhat expected.
Reasons why people hate it have varied from “I want to control my own updates!” to “This 3.7 upgrade broke something, so clearly you’re not ready!” Oh and don’t forget “You suck, I hate this! Why would you default this to on!?”
I want to stress one really important thing here. The automatic background updates for WordPress are for minor updates only. We’re not talking about auto-upgrading people from 3.7 to 3.8, but just 3.7 to 3.7.1 – These are small, minor, updates. When someone comes to me and complains that major releases don’t always work, I have actually said, “So? We’re not talking about major releases.” And of course, “You are making good backups on these super important websites, right? Right?”
It’s really easy to get bogged down with all the variable permutations about what updates could include and forget that WordPress started out simple. Yes, it’s defaulted to “on” because after intensive testing, and careful thought, WordPress core devs are pretty darn sure that these minor updates, which are more often than not security related, will not break a site. I’ll get back to breaking sites in a second. The point is that minor updates were picked specifically because it’s known that major upgrades can often break things.
Why is it defaulted to on? This is my reasoning here… Because the people who wouldn’t turn it on are the people who need it most. If they don’t know it can be turned on, they won’t do it. And they need it. The people who don’t read all the nerdy things are the ones who are still running WordPress 3.4 (no I’m not kidding). I spend a lot of time debugging WP without ever seeing or really ever looking at their site. I know a lot of users don’t upgrade because of laziness, or fear, so I want to address this (see? told you I’d get back to breaking sites).
Don’t fear updates
I said this on Twitter: If your site breaks every time you update WordPress, it’s time for a theme and plugin audit.
So what’s an audit? How does one audit?
It’s really simple. I have a longer presentation I give on this, but let’s go over how simple and basic this is.
Who is the author?
This is really obvious. With one exception, every plugin I use that’s made by core developers is updated to fix problems right away. It’s tested on versions of WordPress in the Beta stage, or even on trunk. It’s reliable because the author is reliable. Using a plugin by Mark Jaquith? No fear!
How active is the author?
Sometimes even I have no idea who that author is, so I look them up. And I want to see how active they are in WordPress. If someone is engaging on trac and writing plugins and themes, and posting about WordPress, yes, I take the time to read up on them. Remember, I’m auditing the plugin! So I want to see that this author is active and writes or contributes in a way that I approve of. That helps me trust them. Now I’m not expecting them to code as prolifically as Nacin, or write as frequently as Chris Lema, or even scour trac like Scribu. I have realistic expectations. One of my favorite developers is ‘try-lingual’ when it comes to CMSs, so I’ll check on her to see if she’s able to keep up with all the myriad CMSs her code works on. She knows about every release coming up? No fear!
How popular is it?
The more a plugin is used, the more people are banging on it in a diverse myriad of environments in ways the author probably never imagined. This is good. This means that the odds are higher than normal that the plugin will work on a bog-standard setup. It also means if I have a common server type (shared) it will probably work. The odds also go up for a more active volunteer environment. Popular plugin, used by thousands? No fear!
How often is it updated?
This is a careful thing. I don’t particularly worry if a plugin is old (i.e. not updated in over two years) if the plugin is simple, or made by someone very reliable. Heck, I haven’t touched the code in Impostercide in years, but I do update the readme every couple of WordPress releases to avoid people thinking it’s been abandoned. That said, I do like to see if the complicated ones are at the very least updating their readmes to say “yes, compatible up to the most recent version.” That tells me not only are they testing, but they’re aware of what’s going on in WordPress. Updates are reasonable? No fear!
What does the code look like?
This is hard. This is really hard. I review plugins, and write them, and it’s just plain hard okay? If I’m lucky, I don’t actually have to do this. Examples? Okay, try StudioPress’ Genesis Theme. I don’t look at their code, unless I need to make a child theme. Even then, it’s a case of trusting them to do the best by me. I believe in their code more than mine most of the time. Another example? Anything managed by WordPress.org. But what about the rest? When it’s simple, I can read through the code, make sure it’s not doing anything nefarious and move on. When it’s not, I hire someone else to do it. You heard me. I pay people to do what I can’t because an audit of code is important. Now I don’t do this for every site. Personal/play sites? I may wing it, knowing I make good backups. But a big, company site? Oh you bet every single line of code was checked. Good code? No fear!
Really? No fear?
No. Not really. You have to keep in mind that none of these are absolutes. I don’t look at just one thing and say “Done, I have no fear.” I mean, I say ‘no fear’ in these explanations, but the truth is it’s the combination of these things that makes me fear less. WordPress is doing a good thing here and I’m not afraid of it.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m using auto-updates on all my sites.