EllisLab founder Rick Ellis announced yesterday that ExpressionEngine has been acquired by Packet Tide, the parent company of EEHarbor, one of the most successful EE add-on providers and development agencies in the community. A year ago EllisLab, the developers of EE core, was acquired by Digital Locations but Ellis said the company ended up not being a good fit for the future of the CMS:

A year ago, EllisLab was acquired by Digital Locations in order to facilitate the transition of ExpressionEngine from a commercial software application to an open source one. That transition was successful, but it became apparent in recent months that ExpressionEngine didn’t fit perfectly within the goals of Digital Locations, as it seeks to build a business in Artificial Intelligence.

We decided that what was best for ExpressionEngine was to seek a new owner, one that could devote all the resources necessary for ExpressionEngine to flourish.

In November 2018, EE went open source, adopting the Apache License Version 2.0, after 16 years of being locked down under restrictive licensing. EE’s dwindling community of product developers and site builders were hopeful that the new open source licensing would expand EE’s reach and bring back developers who had migrated to alternatives like Craft.

After the acquisition announcement, the EE community was concerned whether or not it will remain free and open source. Although the software’s homepage sports the tagline “The Open-Source CMS that supports YOU all the way,” EE’s new owners have left the option open for reconsidering its licensing further down the road. They plan to stick with the open source license for the time being. When asked directly in the EE Slack, EE Harbor developer Tom Jaeger said, “That is our plan for now, although at this stage we’re looking at everything with a fresh eye towards what’s best.” The company has published a list of FAQs with the same information.

Brian Litzinger, a developer at BoldMinded, who has created more than 36 add-ons for EE, and is also on the EECA (ExpressionEngine Community Association) board that organizes EEConf, said he has confirmed that EEHarbor plans to keep the CMS open source.

“The board spoke to new ownership just today actually, and they have every intention of keeping it open source,” Litzinger said. “I can’t speak for the whole community, but since going open source my add-on sales have not significantly increased or decreased.

“As with any open source project there has been feedback and pull requests from the community, but nothing significant (e.g. large features). The community as a whole is pretty excited about the new ownership and ExpressionEngine’s future though.”

Shawn Maida, founder of Foster Made, a company that also sells ExpressionEngine add-ons, said he has not seen a significant direct change in the economics of EE since the project went open source.

“I think the real question here is what business model best enables the growth and continued support of the CMS itself, and how is that balanced against the growth of the community,” Maida said. “As a business that offers some add-ons for ExpressionEngine, we need to see both continued growth in ExpressionEngine as a platform and growth in the community, so I think the license model that best enables that matters.”

Travis Smith, president of Hop Studios, has been working with EE since its early days. As someone who is deeply invested in the EE community, he said that he doesn’t think a prospective licensing change would impact the broader community as much as having a clear vision for the CMS’s future.

“I think a licensing change per se wouldn’t be good or bad, but a well-articulated and communicated vision for the CMS’s future would be really helpful for a community that feels unsure at the moment,” Smith said.

“I do think that the exposure that going open source gave into the development process overall at EllisLab was an improvement, and that new features and bug fixes were getting added at a decent pace.”

EE may have changed its licensing to be open source but it is not a community-led project where major decisions happen by a consensus of a diverse representation of community leadership.

“I didn’t observe the community gaining (or applying?) much input or influence over the future of ExpressionEngine in the past year,” Smith said. “I think there was still a feeling of ‘EE is EllisLab’s project’ — and that this change of ownership might shake the community’s devs out of that default assumption, which would be a good thing.”

In the FAQs EEHarbor published today, the company confirmed that it will be developing new features and that it will consider feedback submitted from the community:

While we are in the early stages of long-term strategic planning, we already have a lot of thoughts and ideas around where to take ExpressionEngine based on our own experience. However, it’s not just about us. We are also very interested in collaborating with the ExpressionEngine community. Everyone is more than welcome to submit feedback for us to review as we consider the future of ExpressionEngine

After 16 years under a restrictive license, EE is an interesting example of a newly open source, corporate-led project with a community that is rediscovering its place while ownership of the software is transferred from one company to another. Responses to the acquisition are mostly positive, and users seem excited about Packet Tide’s first planned initiative – finishing development on ExpressionEngine 6.0. Ellis described this upcoming release as “an exciting new version we’ve been quietly working on behind the scenes.” It will include a new control panel with a dark theme, along with add-on and service integrations inside the app.

EEHarbor does not plan to merge its add-ons with ExpressionEngine core at this time, and the statement published today reiterates the company’s commitment to “keep the add-on marketplace fair and open to all developers.”

Credit: Sarah Gooding for WPTavern

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