EllisLab’s gamble

I've been a loyal EllisLab customer now for six years or so, building dozens of sites with their ExpressionEngine (EE) platform for all manner of clients.

EE wasn't perfect then, and it isn't now: developing a publishing platform able to adapt to the sheer range of content and functionality that can be made available on today's web, and make it editable through an interface that non-technical content editors can understand is hard. Very hard.

I've always thought that EE gets the basics right. The system makes it easy to model content channels that map precisely to the requirements of a desired website structure. There's no messing around trying to shoehorn content into a narrow set of predefined fields. I've used EE to build blogs, news-driven sites, calendars, directories, product listings, staff profile pages, photo galleries, multimedia channels and even prayer diaries. Channel entries can be categorised and relationships between them easily established.

Over the years some outstanding extensions have been developed which have plugged the most significant gaps in EE's default functionality. Structure presents entries in a site-tree format that makes immediate sense to content editors. Matrix facilitates arrangement of EE fields into logical groupings. Playa makes it easy to establish complex entry relationships. CE Images allows developers to entrust image upload to novice users. Espresso Store is an elegant, simple e-commerce solution. Those are just some of my favourites. Augmented with the appropriate extensions EE can be shaped to the demands of virtually any website specification.

It's not free

All this power has come with a price. There's always been a licence fee for the core EE system, and most of the more advanced extensions must also be purchased. For my projects it's been necessary to spend £250 to £400 purchasing the required licenses.

I've always thought that is exceptional value. The cost has risen over the years, but so has the complexity web development. We should expect to pay more for new versions of EE and for the increasing range of innovative plugins and modules.

As it happens the cost of EE itself hasn't risen much at all over the years, certainly not since I've been using it. There was a bit of a hike when EE2 was released two or three years ago, but EllisLab's prices have been stable and affordable. Plugins account for most of the rising cost of developing an EE site, and those, of course, are optional.


So yesterday's announcement of new EllisLab pricing structures is quite a jolt for me - and to judge by the reaction to the news - for most developers in the EE community.

There's no denying that the cost of developing with EE is going to rise quite significantly, quickly. There's now just one EE license option, priced $299. That's not much more than the old commercial license, but the abolition of the non-commercial and freelancer licenses is a factor for developers like me who do a lot of community sites for non-profit organisations. It's worth noting the volume discount has also gone.

But the big coffee-spluttering change is the introduction of a monthly support fee. Support used to be free: now it's a decidedly non-trivial $49 a month. The old forums will continue to be available, but EE tech support staff won't be there anymore, so after a while it will become essential for any serious EE developer to purchase access to paid support.

EllisLab is staffed by clever people who will have already considered - indeed I'm sure agonised over - all of the (many) objections expressed on the blog post announcing the change (it's to their credit they opened this one up to comments). $49 a month is a lot for small studios like mine to pay out, and as I've said I use EE extensively: for developers using the system for the occasional site it is rather prohibitive. EllisLab will probably lost the custom of many casual users. Indeed this is a real test of the loyalty of many of EE's long standing, regular customers, myself included: this is quite a change to digest.

I'm sticking with it

But while I've been loyal to EllisLab, I think over the years they've been loyal to me. EE has been an impressive stable product for a long time (the instabilities that affected early versions of EE2 have been ironed out). There have been no significant price rises for many years. I'm prepared to take EllisLab at their word when they say in their manifesto that they're more committed than ever to ensuring EE is a great product that pays for itself.

That said, like many other EE developers my expectations for the system's future are now set pretty high. It's going to be tough for EllisLab to persuade small studios to stick with EE rather than the wolf at the door: an increasingly ubiquitous, feature-rich and - crucially - open source WordPress. I already use WordPress for smaller projects, but always come back to EE for larger projects, desiring all the wonderful flexibility of EE channels and relationships. But this sudden pricing change has forced me to think more carefully than ever as to whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I'm hoping that over the next few months EllisLab will prove the decision of those of us who are continuing to support the platform to be the right one.