I have a good deal of experience working with both free and commercial themes and plugins. I manage many websites for my day job at Infomedia and also some for my own projects. When I consider purchasing a commercial product, I always check to see how it handles updating. It is a significant con whenever a theme or plugin does not offer automatic updates through the dashboard, just like WordPress.org offers in the free repository.
There are many reasons why auto updates are advantageous for both users and developers.
Why auto updates are important
1) Easier support
I bet developers often get support requests that end in the user realizing they are using an out of date version of a theme or plugin. But the user didn’t know, because there wasn’t an update notice in the plugin.
I am a user of multiple paid plugins that send email notices telling me that their plugin has been updated, but that’s not enough. Relevannsi, WP Adcenter, and until recently, Backup Buddy, are examples of such plugins. I get the emails, but sometimes it takes a while before I can login to the download center, grab the updated plugin, and then perform a manual update across all sites I use the plugin on. The popular plugin marketplace Code Canyon could also use an auto update tool, similar to the one Envato finally released for themes.
I’m not knocking these plugins (there are far more that don’t offer auto updates) – I wouldn’t have listed them here if I didn’t think they were decent products. But they could benefit from auto updates.
2) More secure products
Automatic updates (as in like WordPress.org updates, not invisible Chrome-style updates) are not a pain to a user. It’s easy in WordPress to hit the auto update button. Having to manually update is a pain. I just don’t want to do it. And I’m the type that always wants to be up to date.
If a theme or plugin has a security vulnerability, it’s much more likely that the problem can be fixed across all sites much quicker if auto updates are enabled. If not? Good luck. You can call users lazy, but I’d challenge that you, the developer, are the lazy one.
I know offering auto updates has historically been difficult, but if you’re charging for a “premium” product, it’s worth your own and your users’ time to figure out how to do it right. If .org does for free downloads, you should too.
3) Less hackage
Currently, I bet a lot of users fork hack themes and plugins to perform quick fixes, rather than update. This could be greatly reduced with auto updates. This is my speculation, but I have an inkling. Most people take the path of least resistance, even if it’s a bad idea in the long run.
4) Happier customers
By improving the theme or plugin interface experience via points one and two above, your customers are bound to be happier in the long run. I know that I’m more likely to recommend a WordPress product to other people when auto updates are built in.
How providers manage auto updates
Many commercial providers offer auto updates. WooThemes and Gravity Forms are two examples that quickly come to mind. They utilize similar methods for notifying users of updates. They ask the user to either a) register the specific site with an api key provided from the account settings on the provider site, or b) ask for the provider site’s username and password from within the WordPress dashboard so that the product can check for updates. It’s possible to offer automatic updates and also check users’ registration status using these methods.
But like I said above, it’s historically not been very easy to set something like this up. Or at least I don’t think it would be – I’ve never offered a commercial product to say one way or another. I just know that I’ve always wanted and appreciated them as a user. But very recently, simpler solutions have popped up.
Enable automatic updates, the easy way
WP Updates – a new WordPress auto update solution
Gilbert Pellogrom, of Dev7Studios (maker of the Nivo Slider), and also a developer with Orman Clark’s ThemeZilla, has created a plugin to help theme and plugin authors manage auto updates. It’s aptly named WP Updates. WP Updates offers a web interface for commercial theme and plugin providers to easily upload new versions of their products. Here’s a preview video:
I haven’t tried the plugin yet (as like I said before, I don’t have any commercial products right now), but I’m excited to see what others say about it, because this feature is really needed. Pricing looks reasonable, at only $9 / month for up to ten products, and free for only one product! It scales up after ten products, but the lessened support burden alone seems to make this a no-brainer to me. Also, I assume WP Updates is taking care of the server processing burden on the actual update process.
License extension for Easy Digital Downloads
Pippin Williamson is also working on a complete licensing solution for his Easy Digital Downloads plugin (PS: you heard it here first!). Easy Digital Downloads is effectively the new way to sell WordPress themes and plugins already (many providers are moving to it), and he’s creating this extension especially for them to make their lives easier. I’ve had an opportunity to preview his extension, and I can tell it’s going to be really great.
The plugin will create a license metabox for downloadable products that allows you to version a downloadable product and match it to a corresponding file download. You can see it to the right.
The EDD extension will also offer a licensing management mechanism that is really thorough. On purchase, the extension will create a license that the buyer can then activate through their dashboard. But the admin can also manage active licensing based on various parameters from purchase (like how long the license is active).
So if you are planning to set up a way to sell themes or plugins, and haven’t got your sales environment set up yet, definitely give EDD a look. Pippin is a top rate developer, and his solution is bound to be good. The plugin isn’t only for WordPress, it just really sings with WordPress products. It has a json API that can be used by non-WordPress projects as well. Pippin tells me he already has a game developer looking to use this licensing extension. I really want to have something to sell now….
Expect the license extension for Easy Digital Downloads to be out sometime this month (September 2012). Pippin is gathering beta testers very soon.
It’s time to start offering auto updates
As you hopefully see here, it’s good for developers, it’s good for users, and it’s been made much easier to implement recently. So get on it and start offering auto updates, or at least tell me why you think you shouldn’t. From here on out, I’ll be sending this post to any commercial plugin provider that doesn’t offer auto updates to encourage them to get with the program.