WordPress Release Cycles - dummies

By Lisa Sabin-Wilson

The publicly stated schedule for new WordPress releases is, roughly, once every 120 days, so you can expect a new release of the WordPress software about three times per year. In the last ten years, the WordPress development team has stuck to that schedule pretty closely, with only some exceptions here and there.

When WordPress makes exceptions to its 120-day rule, it usually makes a public announcement so that users know what to expect and the estimated time frame for the new release.

Interruptions in that 120-day schedule can — and do — happen, mainly because the development of WordPress is primarily on a volunteer basis. Only a few developers actually get paid to develop for WordPress — and those are employees of Automattic, the company behind the hosted WordPress.com service.

Because of the volunteer nature of the development crew, the progress of WordPress development depends on volunteer developers making time in their schedules to work on the software in a timely manner. Generally, they do, and you can count on new updates to WordPress on a regular basis.

From a practical standpoint, you can expect to update your WordPress installation at least three, if not four, times per year.

Why you need to upgrade regularly

Don’t get discouraged by how many times you need to upgrade your WordPress installation in a year. The WordPress development team constantly strives to improve the user experience and bring exciting and fun new features to the WordPress platform. With each new upgrade, you find improved security and new features that you can use to improve the experience on your website.

The following list provides some reasons why upgrading your WordPress installation is important and something every WordPress website owner needs to do every time a new version is released:

  • Security: As WordPress versions come and go, outdated versions are no longer supported and are the most vulnerable to malicious attacks and hacker attempts. If you’ve heard anything negative about WordPress security, 99.99 percent of the time it’s because the users were using an outdated version on their websites. Make sure you upgrade to the latest version as soon as you can.

  • New features: With major WordPress releases, you always find great new features and tools that improve your experience, boost your efficiency and productivity in maintaining your website, improve your visitors’ experiences, and are fun to use. Upgrading your WordPress installation ensures you always have access to the latest and greatest tools and features that WordPress has to offer.

  • Plugins and themes: Most plugin and theme developers work hard to make sure their products are up- to- date and compatible with the latest WordPress version. Therefore, plugin and theme developers generally don’t worry about backward compatibility, or working with out-of-date WordPress versions, because keeping their products relevant to the current WordPress version is challenging enough.

    To be sure that the plugins and themes you use are current and don’t break any of the features on your site (for example, they stop working or cause errors), make sure you use the latest WordPress version and the latest version of your chosen plugins and themes.

Release cycles

By the time you upgrade to the latest WordPress installation, that installation has gone through several iterations, or versions, before it lands in your hands. This information helps you understand what it takes to get the latest version to your website, and the terminology used, so when you see it bantered about in blogs and Twitter posts, you at least know the basics of what people are talking about.

The steps and terminology involved in the release of a new version of WordPress include the following:

  • Alpha: This is the first phase of the new version, typically the idea phase in which developers gather ideas from one another, from users, and from community members. During the alpha phase, developers determine which features to include in the new release and develop an outline and project plan.

    After features are decided, developers develop and testers test until they reach the feature freeze — the point in the development cycle when all new features are considered complete and the development moves on to the beta cycle in which developers perfect new features through user testing and bug fixes.

  • Beta: This cycle is in place to fix bugs and any problems reported by testers. Beta cycles can last 4– 6 weeks, if not more, and many times, WordPress releases several beta versions that look something like WordPress version 3.0 Beta, WordPress version 3.0 Beta 1, and so on. This continues until the development team decides that the software is ready to move into the next phase of development.

  • Release candidate (RC): A version is issued as a release candidate when it’s been determined that the bugs from the beta versions have been fixed and the version is almost ready for the final release. You can sometimes see several iterations referred to as RC-1, RC-2, and so on.

  • Final release: When a version has gone through full testing in several (hopefully all) types of environments (browser systems, different web server configurations, and so on) and user experiences; when no major bugs are reported; and when all bugs from the alpha, beta, and RC phases have been squashed; the development team releases the final version of the WordPress software.

After a version is issued as a final release, the WordPress development team starts all over again in the alpha phase, gearing up to go through the development cycle again, ready for the next major version.

Typically, one development cycle lasts approximately 120 days, but any number of things can happen during a development cycle, from developer delays to particularly difficult bugs that take longer to fix than expected.