WordPress 2.9 and PHP Libraries

I recently put new releases of my Twitter Tools plugin – basically patches so that it would work in WordPress 2.9 on versions of PHP prior to 5.2. This is an interesting situation, where I hadn’t really done anything wrong in the plugin and the WP core team hadn’t really done anything wrong in the way they implemented their JSON functionality for versions of PHP prior to 5.2. It just happened that the bits of code weren’t compatible with each other.

Sure it was frustrating. I was in a situation where there was a bit of public outcry about my plugin being “broken”. All of a sudden, something that used to work fine didn’t (for some). The result? I spent a good deal of time debugging an issue with my plugin that I didn’t cause and couldn’t reproduce.1 However when you step back and look at the situation, I’m not sure there is a clear-cut target to blame here. Everyone’s intentions were pure. The point is, this is an interesting case study and one that both the WP plugin and theme devs and the WP Core devs can learn from.

Situation

Versions of PHP prior to 5.2 do not include native functions for encoding and decoding JSON formatted data.

The solution in Twitter Tools prior to the releases last weekend: include a PHP library (Services_JSON) along with the plugin, wrap it in a check to make sure that it isn’t already included, and use it instead of the native PHP functions.

The solution in WordPress 2.9: define the equivalent versions of the native PHP encode and decode functions in the core, include a PHP library (Services_JSON) in those functions and load it if needed.

So we had a situation in some WordPress server configurations where my plugin loaded the library, then WP core tried to load the same library and PHP didn’t like that very much.

The WP 2.9 solution provides us with an interesting situation. I still wanted to support versions of WP prior to 2.9, which means I still need to include my copy of the library. However I also don’t want it to break in 2.9, so I need to make my inclusion of the library compatible with the WP 2.9 approach.

Solution

Use the same approach in my plugin that WP 2.9 does. WP 2.9 checks to see if the PHP function json_encode(), etc. exists, and defines it if it doesn’t. If Twitter Tools does the same thing and loads after the WP version (which is loaded from compat.php), it will only define those functions and include the library as needed. Based on feedback, this approach is working for both pre-2.9 versions of WordPress and WP 2.9.x.

Lessons

Plugin/theme devs, be careful when including a compatibility library that might get added to WP core in the future. Try to structure your code in such a way that it will continue to work even if this happens.

WP core devs, when adding a library consider the plugins that might already be including that library and do so in a way that lets everything continue to work.

Why wasn’t this caught in beta testing of WordPress 2.9? It’s pretty simple – even though I tested some of my plugins in pre-releases of 2.9, I did not test them with older versions of PHP (required to trigger this bug). I’m guessing that most of the developers that were beta testing were also running new versions of PHP. A true application testing matrix is not realistic for WordPress + plugins + themes.

Take a look at the diff for an example, I think this technique is portable to other plugins that may experience this same problem.

Also, I created a ticket in Trac to try to make this work a little more smoothly going forward. Thanks to the core team for accepting the patch.

  1. Trying to patch a problem that you can’t reproduce will inevitably require a few point release. ;) [back]

This post is part of the project: Twitter Tools. View the project timeline for more context on this post.