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By Cynthia Scott | Thursday, August 25, 2011

WordPress 3.2: New look, new features, new possibilities

The updated WordPress admin dashboard. The new design features a more minimalistic and streamlined approach to the content.

WordPress 3.2 was released on July 4th, 2011, followed by the 3.2.1 release on July 12th. If you are learning WordPress, you’ll find that although the content in our current WordPress 3 courses is still relevant, the user interface may be different as new features are added to WordPress.

Our current WordPress courses include:

WordPress 3 Essential Training (covers both WordPress.com and self-hosting through WordPress.org)WordPress 3: Creating and Editing Custom Themes WordPress: Creating Custom Widgets and Plugins with PHPWordPress 3: Building Child ThemesWordPress 3: Developing Secure Sites

I asked author Morten Rand-Hendriksen to summarize the changes in WordPress 3.2 to help anyone who is working through our WordPress courses. Here’s what he had to say.

One of the benefits of working with an Open Source platform like WordPress is that it is in a near constant state of development. That means as more people adopt the platform, the platform evolves to fit the new users and their usage scenarios. Case in point: the 3.2 version of WordPress was released on July 4th, and it brought with it everything from performance enhancements to a new, more streamlined user interface and some cool new features to boot.

Let me take you on a quick tour of the new and improved WordPress 3.2 and introduce you to the new stuff, the old stuff that just looks new, and the stuff you probably didn’t know was there to begin with.

A new look for a new version

The admin section, or back end, of WordPress has gone through some significant layout and design changes over the last few years. These changes have coincided with the maturing of the platform from a blogging tool to a full-fledged CMS. The major shift happened with the 2.7 upgrade when all the menus were moved from a horizontal bar across the top to a vertical (and collapsible) bar on the left side. The new layout also provided more flexibility in the form of collapsible and movable content boxes and the ability to hide rarely used boxes. From 2.7 to 3.1.6, only subtle changes to this design and layout were introduced.

A new, big shift happened with version 3.2, and it became another milestone in the history of WordPress. The new design features a more minimalistic and streamlined approach to the content. The buttons and menus are smaller, leaving more space for content creation. Active elements powered by AJAX have been added to make the administration process less clunky. In addition, this new design and layout puts a lighter load on both the server and the computer you use to visit the site, making everything run faster and with fewer hiccups.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the new look of Google, including Google+ and Gmail, has implemented the same design philosophy with more white space and a more minimalist approach. One can wonder if the Google designers took a page out of the WordPress admin design book…

Overall, the new design is mostly cosmetic, and there are no major changes to the placement of content and functionalities. One notable exception is the removal of the New Post/New Page button previously available in the top right corner of the admin panel, but from my own experience few people used this function, which is likely why it’s gone.

Distraction Free Writing

On the topic of minimalism and a more streamlined work process, WordPress 3.2 comes with a new feature called Distraction Free Writing. As the name suggests, this tool gives you a distraction-free environment in which to do your writing. You activate this new function by going to your post, page, or custom post type editor and clicking the Toggle fullscreen mode button on the toolbar. Once clicked, your browser window turns white, and you’re left with a basic toolbar at the top that fades out when you move your mouse away from it and a screen where only your text and images is displayed.

Distraction Free Writing takes its inspiration from tools like OmmWriter that provide a less cluttered creative environment. It’s one of those small things that seems insignificant, but can have a major impact on your creative process.

New default theme: Twenty Eleven

As with much else in the 3.0 release, Twenty Ten was a shift from the old to the new. Twenty Ten brought with it a whole host of new features, including custom menus, custom header images, and a more integrated commenting feature. And more importantly, it gave theme designers and developers a new baseline standard to work off of when creating new themes and child themes. WordPress 3.2 ships with a new default theme called Twenty Eleven. Twenty Eleven builds on the concepts of Twenty Ten and introduces new elements, like a more advanced header image feature and more theme customization functions. But it is under the hood that the real shift happens: Twenty Eleven is an HTML5 theme through and through. HTML5 is the new official coding standard on which the web is built and by shipping Twenty Eleven as its default theme WordPress is at the forefront of the move towards a more semantic and advanced web.

Rather than scrapping the old for the new, WordPress 3.2 also ships with the now-old Twenty Ten theme. This is an important move because it ensures that all the child themes built on top of Twenty Ten won’t stop working if people decide to upgrade their installation.

Browser upgrade reminders

One of the major challenges for web designers and developers is the vast variety of browsers and browser versions. Up until recently, all the major browser vendors were working independently and interpreting web code in their own unique way. The result was inconsistent experiences for end users and major headaches for designers and developers. In the last few years all the browser vendors have gotten together in an attempt to agree on new standards for the web. This hopefully means we are moving into a future of consistent web experiences powered by the new HTML5 standard.

The problem is that even though the new browsers may be up to date, a lot of people continue using older versions of the browsers. To combat this, a wide range of browser upgrade initiatives have popped up, some from individuals like myself, some from major corporations like Microsoft (www.ie6countdown.com) and some from the open source community.

With version 3.2, WordPress has taken part in this initiative. If you log in to WordPress using a computer with an out-of-date browser, a friendly reminder will appear in the admin panel telling you your browser is out of date and how to upgrade to the latest version. For many users this will be a wakeup call, as many computers are still running old browsers.

Better link management

Though not new in 3.2, the internal linking systems in WordPress have been vastly improved as of late. When you create a link in your text you are now offered the ability to link to existing content right from the Insert/edit link dialog. This function makes it easier to manage your existing content and also helps you avoid having to manually redo all your internal links if you decided to change the domain name of your site.

Related to that, this extended link functionality now also appears when inserting links in HTML View. Previously the link dialog in this view was restricted to only the URI itself.

Know your freedoms—and your developers

WordPress is an open source publishing platform for the web published under the GNU General Public License. But what does that really mean? Over the years there has been a lot of debate over what you can and cannot do with WordPress, especially around the issues of selling services, plug-ins, themes, and derivatives. To make all this a little clearer, WordPress 3.2 ships with a page called Freedoms that can be found in the footer menu if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the admin panel.

The Freedoms page lists what you can and cannot do with WordPress itself, the WordPress trademark, and your own code. The page is well worth the read and will give you a much clearer picture of what WordPress is all about and what you can do with it.

In addition to the Freedoms page, there is also a new Credits page that credits the many people responsible for building, maintaining, and evolving WordPress into what it is today and what it will be in the future. It also gives you an idea of just how big the WordPress community is and how many people are involved in making your chosen web publishing platform. Considering that most of these people work for little or no compensation, the Credits page is a long overdue addition to the WordPress core.

Getting upgraded

Now that you’ve been introduced to the new and improved WordPress, it’s time to get working. If you have a site hosted under WordPress.com, you’ve already had WordPress 3.2 for some time. If  you have a self-hosted WordPress site, you should be seeing a warning at the top of your screen suggesting you upgrade. If not, you can click Dashboard > Updates and upgrade automatically. For new installs you can find the latest version of WordPress at WordPress.org/download.

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