Well it’s been a couple of days now since WordPress Theme developer Cobalt Apps stunned its Catalyst Theme user base and community by announcing the product was no longer for sale and will not be maintained beyond the end of Dec 2014 [UPDATE – now extended, see end of post for update edit].
Instead of moving forward with the Catalyst Theme framework, Cobalt is instead focusing its development efforts on its more recent product, the Dynamik Website Builder, which is effectively a very flexible child theme for the Genesis WordPress framework.
With this change of focus, Cobalt Apps are encouraging their Catalyst user base to make the transition to the Dynamik/Genesis combination during Catalyst’s retirement phase over the next few months with a combination of product licence swaps and incentives.
You can read their big announcement here http://catalysttheme.com/our-big-announcement/ but it’s created quite a stir amongst Catalyst users and the wider WordPress community too.
As the author of various guides for both Catalyst Theme and The Dynamik Website Builder, (including the Cheat Sheets for both products) I thought I’d reflect and comment here on the implications of the Catalyst Theme Retirement announcement.
Catalyst Theme Background
Before getting into the rights, wrongs, and implications, of the changes surrounding Catalyst, let’s take a quick look at the history and details building up to this point.
Catalyst Theme has been developed by Cobalt Apps whose owner and main developer is Eric Hamm. I first engaged with Eric when I bought his earlier WordPress theme called frugal in 2009.
For its time, the frugal theme provided WordPress users with one of the easier ways to design sites through the use of drop-down selections to define the site’s layout and style elements.
From that product concept evolved the amazing Catalyst Theme Framework, released in December 2010.
Written from the ground up, Catalyst took things to a new level, taking the best features and ideas from frugal and benefiting from being a new product developed from a clean slate start.
Frugal users were offered an equivalent licence for Catalyst at no cost, and most migrated their frugal sites to the new platform. Although not always an easy process, the advantages that Catalyst offered made the migration worthwhile and as Catalyst continued to develop, the options and benefits it provided just continued to grow.
What Catalyst Theme Offered
The Catalyst Framework clearly separated the site-wide core functionality options (sidebar layouts, SEO settings, Content options, Navbar/Footer layouts etc) of the Catalyst Parent theme from the design and styling options of the child themes it supported.
The main child theme was called Dynamik.
The Dynamik Child Theme gave almost total control over hundreds of design styling options, colours, widths, borders, padding, margins, widget areas and much, much more.
Over time it also added EZ widget areas that made creating fantastic static homepages easy too.
Combined with the Catalyst’s advanced options for creating unlimited custom page layouts, custom widget and hook areas and being able to easily build custom CSS code (and preview CSS changes live on the site itself before saving the changes), the Dynamik Child Theme provided super flexible, super powerful functionality for users looking to build sites as they wanted them to look relatively easily.
The Parent/Child theme combination of Catalyst and Dynamik opened up the possibility of custom site design for many users who would previously have been restricted to a ‘pre-styled’ off-the-peg theme design such as those typically provided by other WordPress Theme Frameworks like Genesis.
During it’s first 18 months or so, Catalyst developed a hoard of raving fans who provided a great deal of support and sense of community amongst users through the support forum and blog etc.
I can’t remember exactly quite where, but somewhere I recall seeing Catalyst described as a theme with a fanatically loyal following. I’d say that was pretty accurate.
Working with Genesis
In 2012, Cobalt Apps took the decision to develop the Dynamik Child Theme for the Genesis Theme Framework.
In its own right this was a significant step, meaning that no longer did you have to own the Catalyst Framework to obtain the benefits of super easy, flexible, powerful site design that the Dynamik Child Theme provided, but you could use it in conjunction with a competitor framework (to Catalyst) instead.
As a framework, Genesis had been around a while longer than Catalyst and had a much more substantial user base in comparison.
The attractions of offering the benefits of Dynamik as a child theme on that platform, with its wider user base, were apparent.
Providing such a great child theme for one of the most popular theme frameworks would likely be commercially good as a standalone product, and also help attract attention to Catalyst too.
The dangers from a Catalyst fan’s point of view included a dilution of focus and effort away from the Catalyst product and brand.
The Dynamik Website Builder for Genesis
Whatever the pro’s and con’s involved, the result was called the Dynamik Website Builder and was released around June 2012.
Similar to the Catalyst/Dynamik combination, the Dynamik Website Builder for Genesis was well received (as was a derivative of it called the Genesis Extender plugin which provided much of Dynamik’s flexibility for use with other Genesis child themes).
Those using Genesis as the basis for client sites, and users looking for a truly flexible design based theme such as Dynamik provided, loved it too, especially as it also incorporated many of the Advanced features found in the Catalyst Parent theme.
Over the last twelve months or so, users of Catalyst and Genesis have been able to decide which platform and combination offered them the best route forward, and use either of them as they deemed fit in each case.
From my own perspective, I have continued to develop new and existing sites for myself (affiliate sites) and customers primarily using Catalyst/Dynamik whilst also building some other sites using Genesis and the Dynamik Website Builder combination.
I’ve been happy with both but maybe, because of my longer familiarity with Catalyst, I guess I have tended to favour that option a little over Genesis perhaps.
The Catalyst Theme End of Life Announcement
So, forward to 23 July 2013 and Eric’s announcement that future development would be focused on the Dynamik Website Builder for Genesis and that Catalyst would be phased out, albeit with updates and support as required until the end of 2014 [UPDATE – now extended, see end of post for update edit].
I’m sure, knowing Eric a little bit as I do over the years, that this was not an easy decision for him. While frugal evolved from his web design business, Catalyst was a carefully nurtured product that embodied great features and functionality in a truly awesome package. It was his baby.
Catalyst introduced features, such as the CSS Builder and live preview functionality, that other ‘leading’ themes are only just getting around to introducing themselves (as innovative – ha!).
It also has an awesome and very active community behind it, providing input and assistance in addition to direct support from the Cobalt team.
People who discovered Catalyst, and ‘got it’, tended to evangelise about it. It’s that good.
Signaling its end was never going to be an easy message.
Implications of Catalyst Theme Retirement
With a user base of almost 6000, there was bound to be a very mixed response to their announcement. And indeed, from the Catalyst announcement post on their blog, that response has so far been a mix of happy, positive, negative and vitriolic comment on the news.
The more positive comments typically come from those already using Genesis and the Dynamik Website Builder (and many of those use Catalyst too) which is a good sign and perhaps reassuring for those faced with making the move.
The less positive comments and greatest concerns come largely, and understandably, from the purely Catalyst user base.
Those who have only had experience of Catalyst, or previously preferred it to Genesis in the past, are those facing the biggest challenges, and their viewpoints typically reflect this.
Their issues range from the cost of having to purchase Genesis if they don’t already own it, and the fact that the Dynamik Website Builder is apparently ‘worth’ less than Catalyst (latterly $77 vs $127), through to the work involved in migrating sites to the new platform, with host of other topics in-between.
For the most part, I feel the cost aspect, whilst a grievance for many, is a relatively minor issue. Depending when and which version of Catalyst (there have been 2 or 3 ‘editions’ over time) was purchased, there may be $10 to $80 or so difference in apparent value. In addition a licence for Genesis is required which is on offer at $30 to Catalyst owners at the moment [Update – that 1/2 price offer expired early August 2013].
Yes, it’s maybe not as fair as it could be for some, and it likely impacts some more than others, but in the great scheme of costs involved in building a site, whether you’ve paid $77, $127 or $157 at some point in time for the theme doesn’t make that much difference in the long run – especially if it’s spread over more than one site, which will be the case for many (but admittedly not all).
On the basis that the Genesis/Dynamik Website Builder provides pretty much the same functionality, options and possibilities that Catalyst does, the actual relative cost for any individual user to end up with an equivalent close to what they currently have is ‘just’ the possible additional outlay of $30 [at offer price – now expired] for Genesis.
Not ideal for many perhaps, but far from outrageous.
For those that have invested time, money and effort in learning how to use and develop sites with Catalyst however, I truly feel for them.
Whilst Catalyst appealed to many website developers, and for whom getting familiar with another platform is perhaps no great shakes, it also appealed to many individuals with personal websites, small business owners and so on, for whom getting to grips with any one platform was a challenge they faced up to once, and now have to repeat.
And indeed, many developers face their own challenges with this move.
Those who have built client sites with Catalyst now face the possible prospect of having to re-work them in their own time and at their own cost.
Every situation will be different, but my suggestion here is to think about the 17 month time window available for migrating sites and the potential this may provide for whatever the current situation with a client is to change.
For example, a client may want a re-work of their existing site anyway in that time period allowing you to include the migration at the same time, or there may be potential to manage their expectations of future work required (an annual refresh perhaps), or to offer a monthly management/maintenance fee including additional updates and other services.
If nothing else, in most situations there is no urgency to do this – the migration doesn’t have to be done for several months by which time experience will have been gained and potential pain points reduced or removed to make the process easier and faster.
Additionally Eric at Cobalt Apps is working on a migration plugin to transfer settings from one version to the other which should assist and it’s certainly worthwhile waiting for this in the next couple of weeks.
Obviously it would be better for many if this change hadn’t occurred and they didn’t have to even think about it. But it may not be as bad as first thought, and may (just may) provide opportunity for some web developers to build a stronger and more profitable relationship with some of their clients too.
There are, and will be, many other issues and implications for some Catalyst users – such as for those who have promoted and recommended the use of Catalyst to their clients and now have to tell a different story.
For those who have evangelised about Catalyst, this may be a particularly difficult pill to swallow. No easy answers to that one!
As an avid user of Catalyst, and having made a very significant investment of my time in developing guides such as the Catalyst Theme Cheat Sheet and FASTStart guides etc, I have to admit I am saddened by the future demise of Catalyst.
From the moment I got my hands on a beta copy it had the feel of something different, something great.
Despite the obviously intense loyalty and steady growth of the Catalyst fan club (its user base) over the last two and a half years, on a marketing level it was always going to be a hard job competing against the big guns in the world of WordPress themes.
That Cobalt has chosen to not compete against, and instead play with, a very big gun is understandable but also a shame in my opinion.
Catalyst is actually a great framework technically and its disappearance from the marketplace is a significant loss in terms of providing high quality competition and the encouragement to drive along technical development between companies.
On that basis alone I would have preferred Catalyst to have had the branding and marketing muscle to establish itself as an independent big gun of its own. Perhaps the seeds for that to never actually happen occurred a year ago when the Dynamik child theme was first ported for use on Genesis.
Reducing the competition, particularly when it has the quality of a product such as Catalyst, cannot be good. Can it?
It also shows how hard it is for a new product to break through, however good it may be, against the marketing might of the more established products. A rare exception to this that springs readily to mind is perhaps OptimizePress which benefited from strong affiliate promotion during its launch.
In addition, and I discussed this with Eric, it means that Dynamik now has to maintain compatibility with changes to Genesis as well as WordPress and unlike with Catalyst, he is not in control of what happens (or doesn’t happen) with Genesis!
There are positives to this change though. And the change was obviously made with a positive outcome in mind after weighing up all the factors involved!
Bear in mind that what most people loved about Catalyst wasn’t usually so much the underlying Catalyst core framework itself, but the awesomely flexible and powerful design capabilities provided by the Dynamik child theme and Catalyst’s Advanced Options.
Those features and capabilities are similarly and generally provided by the Dynamik Website Builder for Genesis.
By leaving the underlying framework to be dealt with by the Genesis developers, Eric is now able to focus his efforts on making Dynamik better than ever.
Cobalt Apps now only has one platform to support and develop Dynamik for, resulting in more development time, and more focus, on one product version instead of two.
That might sound like a bit of candy-coating the pill, but having only one core platform to focus development around instead of two has to provide a serious clarity of focus and simplicity of problem solving that benefits the resulting product.
Of course some may say that the single platform should have always remained Catalyst.
But, by providing Dynamik for use as a child theme on one of the most popular frameworks with a much larger user (and growing) user base instead, Eric and Cobalt are expecting the business result to turn out better for them, and as a result, their customer base and community too. A better business for Eric and Cobalt is likely to mean a better product and service for their customers, and over a longer time.
An additional potential benefit, is that because Cobalt’s Catalyst framework is no longer competing against the Genesis framework, this may now induce Genesis and StudioPress to embrace and promote the Dynamik child theme amongst its own community – thereby extending the reach and popularity of Dynamik in the marketplace.
Potentially a massive win-win situation.
This article turned out much longer than I expected when I started out. There are many issues and viewpoints I’ve tried to cover and express in a reasonably balanced piece.
While the retirement of Catalyst is an outcome I would have preferred not to see, I can see why it makes sense for Eric and Cobalt Apps to have taken the decisions and the route they have.
I have used both the Catalyst and Genesis combinations of Dynamik to build sites and am very happy moving forward with the Dynamik Website Builder and Genesis on new sites.
For existing Catalyst sites, one day I’ll have to bite the bullet and spend the time to migrate them.
Ultimately, nothing stays the same for too long, especially in the world of WordPress, themes, plugins and websites. Change happens.
Those changes may not always be something we want, and sometimes can be a real pain in the a** at just the wrong moment in time, but it’s something we have to live with and move along with.
This is a change I’m willing to live with, embrace and move forward with. The result I suspect will be better than currently imagined by many, including myself when I first heard it (albeit with a little pain along the way perhaps!).
Am I happy to recommend the Dynamik Website Builder for Genesis – yes I am – both for new users and for Catalyst users considering making the move!
Am I sad to see the ultimate demise of Catalyst Theme – yes to that too…
Thanks for the magic that is/was Catalyst Theme, and here’s to the Dynamik Website Builder!
UPDATE – 29 July 2013
Shortly after posting this, Cobalt announced an extension to the future maintenance timescale for Catalyst Theme.
Now, instead of just maintaining Catalyst up to the end of 2014, it will be maintained indefinitely – “Well into the future” as Cobalt put it!
Whilst the product will no be developed or enhanced (or indeed sold), this means that existing users sites will continue to work and wont require migrating or reworking specifically because of the retirement of Catalyst Theme.
Now users will be able to migrate as and when circumstances best suit them – naturally, and not forced upon them.
Likewise, web developers will be more able to perform the migration of client sites in a better planned and more advantageous manner for all parties.
Of course, with the non-development of Catalyst and subsequent lack of future enhancements to its features and functionality, the move to a platform that is being actively developed such as the Dynamik Website Builder still makes sense – just that now the pressure to move has been lifted to migrate within a set timeframe. A good move by Cobalt!