Is ExpressionEngine Becoming Too Expensive?

Let’s do a quick breakdown of the pricing of a “typical” ExpressionEngine site.
ExpressionEngine Logo

Over the last year or so, the ExpressionEngine community has seen a lot of changes. Without a doubt, the biggest change is the release of ExpressionEngine 2, which was released as a public beta on December 2, 2009 and is now out of beta as of July 12, 2010. But I would argue that a close second would be the rise of third-party developers releasing commercial add-ons for ExpressionEngine.

Commercial ExpressionEngine add-ons have been around for awhile, thanks to developers such as Leevi Graham and Solspace. But the last few months have seen a sudden new wave of developers who have begun charging for their add-ons, with Pixel & Tonic’s Brandon Kelly perhaps being the most famous. (Kelly even gave a presentation on commercial add-on development at EECI 2009.)

There are still plenty of free add-ons for ExpressionEngine, just do a quick perusal of Devot:ee’s add-on library. But clearly, a paradigm shift of sorts has begun within the ExpressionEngine community, as more and more developers are selling that which might have been offered for free even last year. Which brings me to the point of this entry.

Along with this rise in the number of commercial add-on developers, I’ve also noticed a certain attitude developing within the ExpressionEngine verse that ExpressionEngine is becoming too expensive. I first noticed it when Kelly began releasing his commercial add-ons, which were a huge hit and paved the way, I think, for more developers, and it really seemed to gain ground when EllisLab announced ExpressionEngine 2’s pricing structure, which included ditching the free “Core” version and increasing the license price across the board.

Does this idea — that ExpressionEngine is becoming too expensive — have any credence? Well, let’s do a quick breakdown of the pricing of a “typical” ExpressionEngine site:

  • ExpressionEngine Commercial License: $299.95
  • Structure (Allows users to manage website content in a familiar directory/page hierarchy): $65
  • Wygwam (I don’t like them, but users gotta have a WYSIWYG editor, and you could do far worse than Wygwam): $35
  • LG Better Meta (Very powerful add-on for managing meta content and XML sitemaps): $39.95

(I realize that “typical” is a relative term, and there are certainly plenty of other add-ons that I install. However, in my experience, I’ve found that these form the core of my typical ExpressionEngine installation.)

The above list adds up to $439.90. Which might cause some folks, particularly those accustomed to a free/open source CMS, to choke a little. “$439.90?! That’s way too much considering how much I charge for a typical website!” And therein, I think, lies the point. So much of the concept of ExpressionEngine’s expensiveness (or lack thereof) is relative to the budget of your projects.

Assuming that you’re billing your client for the expenses related to the development of their site, including software purchases — which you should be doing — $439.90 might seem obscene if you typically charge no more than $1000 for a website. (For what it’s worth, these are projects that I tend to avoid like the plague, for several reasons — but that’s a different entry altogether.)

However, I’ve worked with clients who, when they hear about ExpressionEngine’s price tag, express surprise at how cheap it is relative to its capabilities. But they’re accustomed to enterprise level applications that typically cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And finally, I’ve had many clients who simply don’t care what I’m using to build the site, or how much it costs (within reason, of course).

There’s always going to debate and discussion, especially as ExpressionEngine continues to gain marketshare and acclaim, and as folks used to WordPress, Drupal, et al. give it a shot. You don’t have to do a side-by-side CMS comparison to say that they’re different systems with different feature sets, emphases, etc. So to say, out of hand, that ExpressionEngine is simply becoming too expensive because something like WordPress exists strikes me as rather silly — for a couple of reasons.

First, it assumes that other systems, like WordPress, have no expense or cost associated with them. But that’s completely wrong: everything has a cost associated with it. It may not be a monetary cost, but rather a cost in time or features, but it’s a cost nevertheless. So then the question is no longer, “Why do you want to pay any costs?” but rather, “Which costs are you willing to pay and/or are you comfortable passing on to your clients?”

In other words, it’s all about trade-offs. I have no problem with paying $300 for an ExpressionEngine license because that cost offsets other costs related to speed and reliability of development, functionality, and support that I consider to be more “expensive” than $300.

Second, it assumes that content management systems in general, and ExpressionEngine in particular, are inexpensive to build and maintain. In fact, I’ve read people grouse about ExpressionEngine’s costs and then say that it would be cheaper to build their own CMS. Speaking as someone who has developed content management systems of all shapes and sizes, that’s absolute nonsense. When I see a comment like that, I can’t help but assume that the author has never tried to build their own CMS. What’s more, I can only assume that they’re grossly underestimating the amount of time, money, research, and frustration — i.e., the costs — involved in such an endeavor.

Even “basic” content management systems are complicated little beasts, and once you start rolling in features like file/document management, template management, and permissions, they become even more so — and that’s not even taking into account support and future updates. Indeed, the whole reason I started using ExpressionEngine in the first place nearly four years ago was because I’d grown tired of building my own content management systems and being responsible for their continual support and upkeep.

Again, it goes back to costs and trade-offs. Yes, an ExpressionEngine license costs $300, but that money is paying for someone else’s time to develop and maintain the software, as well as respond to my support requests (of which there can be quite a lot at times). And seeing as how I’d much rather make money doing EE development than PHP/MySQL development, that’s a very acceptable trade-off for me.

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