Plugin back-compat with old WP versions

One of the great things about the WordPress project, is that it is committed to retaining backward-compatibility. That makes life easier for plugin developers, because we don’t have to constantly worry that the next update to WordPress will break our plugins. It won’t. And in rare cases where it could, we are given full warning ahead of time.

But sometimes things do get deprecated, and a new, better way of doing things is introduced. When this happens, we often need to update to the new way of doing things. Sometimes this means our plugins won’t work with older versions of WordPress out of the box, unless we write special code for backward compatibility.

This post is a plea to WordPress developers not to do this.

Actually, I’m all for maintaining backward compatibility with older versions of WordPress, as long as it doesn’t keep you from moving forward. I’ve actually done it myself. But before writing back-compat code, think a little bit about the out-dated version of WordPress that you are supporting. Should people actually be using that version of WordPress? Sure, some folks don’t need to have every new feature that WordPress comes out with, they’re doing just fine with the version they have. But it isn’t about the features. It isn’t even about the bugs. It’s not even about the fact that the admin panel feels like something brought through the flood on the ark. No. It’s about the vulnerabilities.

If you haven’t actually faced this yet, let me disillusion you. All web software has security vulnerabilities. Every. Single. One.

The old versions of WordPress have vulnerabilities, and the new versions of WordPress have vulnerabilities. In fact, there are vulnerabilities in WordPress trunk, that as you read this, are just sitting there waiting to be discovered. The difference is that we know what the vulnerabilities are in the old versions of WordPress. And we know something else. They aren’t fixed. They are still there on every site that is running that old WordPress version. That old, insecure version of WordPress.

Now let me ask you, is that something that you, as a WordPress developer, want to promote? Using vulnerable software?

But what can you do about it? You can decide not to waste your precious time writing code whose only purpose is to support these outdated WordPress versions.

I’m not asking much. I’m not asking you to write code to purposely break your plugin’s compatibility with old WP versions. If it happens to run fine on vulnerable versions of WordPress, that’s fine with me.

I’m actually not asking you to do anything, for starters. Just stop doing something that maybe you’re already doing: writing back-compat code for insecure WordPress versions. And if you do want to do something, here’s an idea: remove the back-compat code you’ve already written.

Maintaining backward compatibility is always a tough decision. It takes extra work, work that could be used to fix bugs or design cool new features. So why do it when you have such a good excuse reason not to? Writing back-compat code for insecure versions of WP is encouraging users to continue using those versions instead of updating to newer versions, where all known vulnerabilities have been fixed.

There was a time in the not-to-distant past, when only the latest version of WordPress received security updates. That time is no more. With the advent of automatic updates, making security patches available to users of older versions became much easier. Now all versions of WordPress back to 3.7, when automatic updates were introduced, are maintained. So you can provide backward compatibility to 3.7 in your code in good conscience. But please, don’t go any further than that.

Telling your users why you don’t support older versions is also a good idea. They will thank you. Or they’ll call you names, and wonder why they keep getting hacked. Either way, you know that you are doing something to make the web more secure.

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