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Self-hosted WordPress.org users got a nice surprise on Independence Day with the release of WordPress 3.2, “Gershwin.”

WordPress 3.2 is the fifteenth major WordPress release in the project’s eight-year history. The focus in this release was to make things faster, lighter and more streamlined.

We’ve spent some time with WordPress 3.2, both in its various betas and in the final version, and put together this guide to what’s new, improved and enhanced.


1. New Minimum Requirements


One of the larger technical changes in WordPress 3.2: This release officially drops support for older versions of PHP and MySQL. The new requirements mean that PHP 4 and MySQL 4 will no longer be supported.

This is a good thing. PHP 5 and MySQL 5 have both been available since 2005, and WordPress is actually one of the last major pieces of web software to drop support for the old versions. Even though WordPress 3.2 doesn’t actually do anything that requires PHP 5, this is the first step in that direction. Moving to PHP 5 and MySQL 5 means that future versions of WordPress can be lighter, take advantage of more new features and be better optimized for performance.

The new basic requirements are PHP 5.2.4 and MySQL 5.0. The popularity of WordPress and the fact that the team made the announcement of the switch a year in advance means that most major hosts who weren’t already running newer versions of MySQL and PHP have had a chance to upgrade.

You can find out if your web server meets the minimum requirements by installing the Health Check plugin from the WordPress directory. It simply tells you what versions of PHP and MySQL you are running and lets you know if that is appropriate for WordPress 3.2.


2. Goodbye, IE 6


In a similar vein, WordPress.org is following in the footsteps of WordPress.com and dropping support for IE 6. Supporting IE 6 has long been a struggle for the UI team — many of the new features and additions just don’t play well with the aging browser.

You can load the WordPress dashboard in IE 6 but it won’t look good or be very usable. For corporate users who are still forced to use IE 6 at work, use this as yet another opportunity to convince the bean counters to move away from IE 6 and onto modern browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari or IE 9.


3. New Default Theme


One of my favorite features in WordPress 3.2 is the new default theme, Twenty Eleven.

When WordPress 3.0 was released last year, it came packaged with a brand-new default theme, Twenty Ten. At the time, the WordPress Theme Team said the goal was to introduce a new default theme every year.

Twenty Eleven is the spiritual successor to the Duster theme for WordPress.com and WordPress.org users. Duster was developed by the gang at Automattic (the people behind WordPress.com) and it was a visually and technically impressive theme.

Twenty Eleven has taken the work on Duster and improved it, making it more stable and robust. Visually, the theme is clean and modern and it supports responsive layouts, which means that the same website will look great on a phone, an iPad or desktop monitors of varying sizes.


4. Distraction Free Writing Mode


The big “shiny” feature in WordPress 3.2 is the addition of a new distraction free writing mode. When users enter the fullscreen mode of the WordPress post editor, they are now treated to a new writing mode that aims at cutting down on distractions and making it easier for users to “just write.”

It’s a nice feature, particularly for users who like to spend a lot of time on their prose and don’t want to be distracted by sidebars, menus and options. Plus, the feature is smart enough to still allow users to access various parts of the publishing interface.


5. Redesigned Dashboard


Visually, the backend WordPress interface has received an overhaul. This is the first major user interface change since WordPress 2.7 was released in 2008. The new interface is cleaner, more streamlined and the interface has been lightened up.

The changes are subtle, but the overall effect, at least for me, is something that looks more professional and more polished. WPCandy has put together a full before and after gallery highlighting the interface changes.

You can also check out our gallery from earlier this year that walks through the evolution of WordPress from 2003 through 2011.

WordPress 0.7.1

The first release of WordPress was unleashed onto the interwebs on May 27, 2003.

Check out the sparse backend/post page.

WordPress 1.0.1

WordPress hit 1.0 in January of 2004. The update included an improved installation process, a new default theme and a more robust backend.

WordPress 1.2

Released in May 2004, WordPress 1.2 introduced plugins, extending WordPress even further.

WordPress 1.5

In February 2005, WordPress 1.5 was released. It included new features like the ability to create pages, as well as posts and a new default theme, Kubrick. Kubrick would stay on as the default theme until 2010.

WordPress 2.0

On December 31, 2005, WordPress 2.0 was introduced to the world.

WordPress 2.0 featured a redesigned (and blue) admin, WYSIWYG editing and inline uploads.

WordPress 2.1

More than a year would pass before WordPress 2.1 would make its way to users in January 2007.

WordPress 2.1 included autosave for posts and drafts, a tabbed post editor and the ability to set any page as the homepage of a website.

WordPress 2.2

In May 2007, WordPress 2.2 was released. It introduced widgets to the WordPress world and kicked off a new, more frequent development cycle.

WordPress 2.3

WordPress 2.3 was released in September 2007. The big new feature in 2.3 was support for tags as well as categories. That may not seem that important in 2011, but at the time, it was a huge feature.

WordPress 2.5 Dashboard

In March 2008, WordPress 2.5 was released. A major user interface update, WordPress 2.5 brought about some major changes to the dashboard and post screen.

WordPress 2.5 Post Screen

Although certainly better looking than previous versions of WordPress, WordPress 2.5 was criticized for some as being “too different.”

The interface remained largely unchanged in WordPress 2.6, released in July 2008, but the backend would soon change again.

WordPress 2.7

In December 2008, WordPress 2.7 became available. For the second time in less than a year, the user interface was completely revamped. This time, it was a hit.

WordPress 2.7 Post Screen

The overall interface remained largely the same from WordPress 2.7 through WordPress 2.9.

In the intervening 18 months, however, WordPress gained lots of new features and started to really round itself out as more than just a blogging engine.

WordPress 3.0 Dashboard

Released in June 2010, WordPress 3.0 was a major release for the platform.

Many of the new features, like custom post types and taxonomies have helped WordPress establish itself as a real, grown-up CMS.

WordPress 3.0 Post Screen

The post screen for WordPress 3.0 and 3.1 is customizable and modular.

WordPress 3.2 Beta Dashboard

The next major WordPress release, WordPress 3.2, is expected sometime in June 2011. This release features a revamped dashboard and post interface. It also marks the official end for support for Internet Explorer 6.

WordPress 3.2 Post Screen

WordPress 3.2 carries over many of the elements from WordPress 3.0/3.1, but with a more refined look and feel.

WordPress 3.2 Distraction Free Writing Page

One of the big new features in WordPress 3.2 is the introduction of the Distraction Free Writing mode. This mode allows the user to just concentrate on writing, without worrying about sidebars, modules or custom fields.

In some respects, the new writing mode harkens back to the earliest days of WordPress.

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