The Movable Feast Got Away from Movable Type

Movable TypeFrom time to time I get emails from readers asking some variant of the question, “What did you use to make your blog?” The answer is Movable Type, a very capable publishing tool to which I owe a great debt; without it, I’m not sure I would have written the hundreds of posts I have, probably remaining instead just a frustrated design and technology writer of dubious talent, wrestling with the limitations of Blogger. For publishing power relative to what was available even just five years ago for much, much more money, Movable Type offers a tremendous and compelling value.

Those questions are often followed up with, “Do you recommend that I use Movable Type, too?” That’s a little trickier, but honestly, I think I’ve come to the point now where I’d have to answer, no, I wouldn’t recommend Movable Type to new bloggers. Instead, I would recommend WordPress, very similar software that’s marked by a few key differences: it’s open source, which means it’s free; it’s PHP-based (versus CGI and PERL-based, like Movable Type), which means it’s technologically easy to modify; and it’s clearly the publishing tool of the moment.

Winners and Not Winners

It’s sad to say this, but Movable Type and its publisher Six Apart have lost that moment in the spotlight that they possessed just three or four short years ago. I won’t speculate on what happened, other than it’s a sign of how little the blogging industry has grown in spite of how phenomenally it’s grown, too. There’s been a proliferation of new blogs, of course, but they’ve been brought to bear based on a wide variety of competing systems like Blogger, Six Apart’s own Typepad, and a dozen or so others, many of them hosted solutions. There still isn᾿t a clear winner in the marketplace, a runaway hit that’s categorically left the others in the dust.

In 2003, I would have bet that winner would have been Movable Type, and if you aggregate its users with those of Typepad and its other sister products, I bet you could make a convincing case that they are in fact the market leader. But the blogosphere is a funny place, and in spite of numerical metrics, it’s so clear that WordPress has caught the popular imagination of the most interesting bloggers out there — and that of the many of the new, ill-conceived but unrelenting wave of new bloggers publishing for the first time every day, too. I can᾿t tell you how many times I’ve seen barely altered variants on Kubrick, WordPress᾿s wildly popular out-of-the-box template, in the past six months, and how few times I recall coming across one of Movable Type’s many stock templates.

Developer Developments

What᾿s more, the WordPress user community seems robust and enthusiastic in a way that Movable Type used to, but does no longer. When I went hunting for Movable Type plug-ins to remedy my comment spam problem, I was shocked how many of them had mothballed their Movable Type projects, declaring instead that they᾿d become WordPress developers. That’s a quietly damning turn of events.

For myself, I like Movable Type a lot, still, but mostly because I know it so well. I may eventually trade it in for a new publishing system — I’d be more than happy to use something much faster, more responsive and modern-feeling — but for now, I’m not convinced that a move to WordPress will yield enough benefits to make the learning curve worthwhile for me. Besides, this is just a hunch, but it feels nearly as if WordPress has begun to crest as well. The time feels right for a new kind of blog publishing tool, one that takes a quantum leap ahead of these two basically comparable software packages. If there’s one truism about the blogosphere, it’s that the definition of what a blog is remains under constant, turbulent change, and its tools will inevitably reflect that.

  1. Maybe it’s the circles we move in, but I feel like I’m seeing more of the vanilla Typo design than Kubrick these days. Likely because early adopters hate it when they’re not early adopting, but also perhaps because the irony of WordPress’ “Code is poetry” tag has become too much for many to bear.

  2. I hear ya, man. I, too, currently use Movable Type for my blog (but only until May 1st!) — but I stopped recommending it a year or so ago. For me, it was the horrible comment spam problem that finally tipped me away from touting it. I hear WordPress has gotten nearly as bad in that regard.

    I’ve used WordPress on a handful of sites (never my own), and there’s no doubt it’s a very capable blogging tool. Same goes for Textpattern. If someone were to tell me they wanted to host their own blog quickly and easily, I’d probably recommend WordPress. Typo is nice, as well, but WordPress is the most robust app out there right now and is dead simple to install on most hosting enviroments.

    But, I’m skipping WordPress, myself. Nothing againt it (or Typo, or Textpattern), but I’ve just come to the point where I don’t want “just a blog app” any more. I want my personal site to be more than just a blog. I want it to be an aggregation point of all the content I produce digitally, whether it be blog posts, links I bookmark on, photos I post on flickr, comments I post here at Subtraction, pieces I produce for my portfolio, etc.

    For that reason, my May 1 reboot drops the standalone blog app in favor of the Django framework, which lets me quickly and easily write and “plug in” new apps as I find new things to do with my site. With MT and WordPress in the past, I’ve felt like everything I produced that wasn’t a blog entry was hackishly fitting its way into the so-called CMS, rather than elegantly integrating with the site as it should.

    Today, we’re blessed with frameworks (notably Django and Rails) that let even those of us who aren’t really programmers roll our own simple apps. In doing this, I’ve found the result is a site that is more exactly what I wanted in the first place, and a helluva lot more creative freedom.

  3. I was lucky enough to get a preview of the new from Mr. Croft himself, and it’s really awesome. I can’t wait until it’s launched so everyone can see how really fantastic it is.

    And Jeff, will you be posting a tour of Django and its admin interfaces, especially with regard to the way you customized it? (Answer yes, please.)

  4. Aww, thanks Khoi! I’m sure you could tell how much of an inspiration Subtraction and your other work was when you got the sneak peek, so thanks for that, too. 🙂

    I’ll definitely be posting a lot of info about how the new site was built, no doubt. I probably won’t have it all ready to go when the site rolls on May 1st, but I’ll get to it shortly thereafter. A tour of the Django admin area makes sense, too — so I’ll be sure to include it. 🙂

  5. Yeah, I’m actually thinking about doing an entire post on Croftie’s new hotness. Dare I say “best all-around blog I’ve ever seen”? I think I might. In many ways at least.

    As for the MT thing, I’m in the same boat as you. Probably good enough to keep from doing a proactive migration, but possibly not good enough to move forward with. I also agree about WordPress. Seems nice. Seems a little better in many ways. But listening to Croftie — man of marginal hardcore engineering experience — say he can write stuff around Django to do everything he wants is pretty intriguing.

  6. Indeed, I’ve found myself argued into the same corner. I’ve been working with Movable Type for years and I’ve become incredibly comfortable with it. While its structure and format is certainly starting to feel a bit dated, I haven’t done the intellectual investment necessary to migrate over to WordPress.

    I’m intrigued by the “roll yer own app” mentality, however, and that may be the course for the future. As it stands, I’m gearing up to take a step away from blogging for awhile, which I suppose could grant me the perfect opportunity to experiment with some wicked stuff. Less guilt, more fun!

  7. So where does Expression Engine figure in this discussion?

    I looked at it when considering which blogging tool to go with, only to be put off by its asssociated costs. But, I note, pMachine have since released the source code for free, and said source code contains more than enough features for most bloggers.

    I also note that some well known bloggers, like Veerle Pieters, Simon Collison and Mark Boulton, are also relying upon and espousing the virtues of EE. Perhaps this is the beginning of the next trend you are looking for Khoi?

  8. Hi Steve,
    I love EE. I have no idea how django works, though. It sounds interesting–I’m going to look into it further.

    But back to EE. For all it offers, I find the price tag a real bargain. I use it on my own site and on 90% of the projects I take on. Part of it is, indeed, my comfort level with the program (it’s that way with any CMS I suppose) but the flexibility is unparalled. EE makes it possible for “small” sites to boast the robust features and interactivity previously seen only on corporate sites with massive budgets.

    I believe they have a 30-day trial of EE, though it can take a while to really explore the flexibility of the system.

  9. I’ve been looking at this situation too. Not just for blogging, I want something for a CMS that is the right combination between ease of development and features.

    Expression engine looks very interesting and there is a free version which only has the core featuers –

    Right now i’m cooking up custom CMS in rails, I might give Django a go myself, not that I know any Python.

  10. Interesting post Khoi, I have used MT for a few years now and on the whole I find it excellent for my needs. I recently began toying with WordPress though, and I have to say I find it much better.

    Personal preference of course, but here are some of the advantages I feel it has over MT:

    a) it’s much faster – displaying pages, editing, adding/removing pages – everything just feels faster
    b) you can have multiple themes so if, like me, you want to change the design of your site every damn calendar month, it’s easy
    c) the installation and setup was incredibly easy. Whereas with MT it took a few hours (and there were the ‘usual’ installation errors, mainly due to an omission or error on my part) to get the blog up and running, with WordPress I had it installed on the server with all my MT entries imported within minutes. Seriously. Albeit with the ‘Kubrick’ theme…
    d) it’s open source and free. Nuff said.

    What’s also interesting is the number of people who are looking at building their own bespoke blogging tool, using Ruby or Django. My goals for my site would be similar to those of Mr Jeff Croft – a truly flexible tool that allows me to upload/post/add (whichever term is more suitable) ‘my stuff’ to my site.

  11. I stick with MovableType because it is what I know, both the quirks and otherwise.

    Check out the recent Akismet release for MovableType, Khoi. It should serve you well until you (if you) switch to another blogging platform.

    6A has one thing going for it: a lot of entrenched users. I use MT on sites like The Sand Trap and it’d take days to get another system running smoothly and looking the same, and days more again to train the folks who use it to use it again.

  12. I’ve used MT (my blog), WP (employer blog), TxP (testing), and EE (client). Of all of these, I’ve found EE most flexible out-of-the-box, if a little confusing to understand how templates and template groups work.

    Django… time to hit up the new superstar: JC. (Jeff, not Jesus)

  13. Yay! another plug for WP!

    I thought that this was a really good question to ask.

    “The time feels right for a new kind of blog publishing tool, one that takes a quantum leap ahead of these two basically comparable software packages. If there’s one truism about the blogosphere, it’s that the definition of what a blog is remains under constant, turbulent change, and its tools will inevitably reflect that.”

    So given that blogging apps have basically grown out of necessity, and it has grown rather fast until recently, what is needed?
    What are blogs missing? Do the apps have too many features? Can WP be simplified even more?

    The main thing I like about WordPress is that out of the box (or zip file) it is accessible to a wide range of users. It starts out simple and bare, but useable enough to feel complete. And I feel like the intentions behind it are really good.
    Make it free. Inspire community.

  14. I more often that not, champion EE for people who know their way around and then WordPress for those who have no clue. I have to be honest and say I can’t remember a recent time that I’ve recommended MT to anyone.

    People are always looking to save time and to not have to really learn how things work on the backend and for that WP is king.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see something entirely new and different from the MT people – they seem to reinvent themselves every so often.

  15. Khoi – my thoughts exactly. I left my site alone for a while, and was really reluctant to come back to it before I’d moved everything off of MT. By the end, I’d built up so many hacks and plugins and templates just to do what I wanted it to, I didn’t even want to touch it for fear I’d have to fix something. People would ask me how I “hacked” the templates for my photolog, and I couldn’t even remember what I did to tell them.

    I’ve never used WordPress (I was a little turned off initially by the php-as-template idea), but like Jeff I’ve been wooed by the power of Django. Believe it or not, building a simple blog app from scratch was actually *less* complicated than my original blog setup in MT (with custom templates, and plugins and keyvalues and god make it stop). And when I want to do something on my site that’s not a blog, I don’t have to hack a blog to do it. I just roll a new app.

    And seriously Mike, if Jeff (and I) can wrangle Django, surely you can hire someone smarter than you to figure it out for you.

  16. I had to use Movable Type for a client project a while back and was surprised to find that it wasn’t the limbering dinosaur I have imagined it to be. The learnign curve for setting it up is pretty high, though. I wouldn’t use it again unless I had to.

    I’ve heard that Textpattern is pretty good. 😉

  17. I’ve been on the fence for a while now. I’ve used MT since the first day it was publicly released, and I’m very used to it. But I agree that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of innovation these days from SixApart – it’s almost as if they’ve stopped pushing the envelope and are leaving the innovation for independent plugin developers and others.

    I recently tried WordPress out for a client weblog project, and while it’s very “programmer-friendly”, it’s biggest weakness is that it isn’t great as a writing environment for non-techies. The admin system has this “built by programmers” workflow to it that makes it a non-starter in my opinion.

    MT isn’t much better out of the box, but Kevin Shay’s incredible RightFields plugin helps in this regard. Maybe there’s a plugin for WordPress that can do the same kind of customization? I never found one.

    And finally, from a purely aesthetic / asinine perspective the fact that WordPress’s “tags” are just PHP calls kind of bugs me. MT and TextPattern’s tagging system definitely win for elegance.

  18. There seems to be a plethora of hosted blogging solutions and the latest addition of LifeLogger seems to throw in media sharing into its blogging platform. Personal preferences aside, I agree that MT and WP are on a plateau at the moment, and the time is ripe for a new venture. The question, however, is, “How will the features/benefits of this new venture outdo what currently exists with MT/WP/EE?”

  19. I have to admit that I have never used MT. It always seemed a bit much and the learning curve was always something I was hearing about.

    I have to give props to Textpattern. It is an amazingly clean and well written CMS with a community that keeps it on the edge. It has given me the flexibility to do just about anything I have come up with (with a few hacks, and some jiggerypokey) – BUT in the end it has been consistently solid.

    I guess I really didn’t like the WordPress “tag” system – they seemed a bit… clunky. However, Steve Smith’s Tiger Admin for WP is AMAZING – I wish he would port it for TXP (hint, hint).

    Ultimately, the Django theme in these comments is quite interesting and with all the Web 2.0 hype, etc. I am guessing we may even see a few new stars on the rise.

    All in all, we are quite blessed to have the options we have to help us create our vision.

  20. I made the switch from Movable Type to WordPress about six months ago or so and I have never looked back. Honestly, the experience is like night and day – it makes blogging so much more enjoyable.

  21. I think at this point I’m just so married to MT that I would have to see something spectacular come along to change. I’ve tried WP and EE and just the interface and the way categories are handled – if I’m just porting my blog it doesn’t feel like I can do things the way I want.

    I lieu of someone coming out with a whole new way of thinking, right now all the tools are just variations on a theme. Some with more features and some with less. But a Blog is a pretty simple thing when it gets right down too it. How robust does the tool that runs it need to be?

  22. I think it needs to be robust enough to feel fast and responsive, at a minimum. But I also tend to think that, as blogs get more and more complex or their uses get more and more varied, considerably more flexibility without a commensurate cost in usability is desirable in a blog tool.

    Movable Type can be hacked to do most of what we need today, but it’s not a pretty process, and as Wilson said earlier, that ad hoc approach can create a personal disincentive to return to source/templates when new changes need to be made.

    You never want to dread going back to your templates; to me, that’s a sign of a creaky infrastructure.

    What’s also interesting about Movable Type — and, at the same time, a sad indictment of it — is that by and large most of the comments here by its users express a certain resignation to it. Rather than saying, “Movable Type is clearly the superior to these alternatives,” what I’m hearing is instead, “I’ve been using Movable Type so long, it will take a big reason for me to change to something else.” That’s not really a strategy for growth; I hope they realize that over at SixApart.

  23. “Rather than saying, “Movable Type is clearly the superior to these alternatives,” what I’m hearing is instead, “I’ve been using Movable Type so long, it will take a big reason for me to change to something else.” That’s not really a strategy for growth; I hope they realize that over at SixApart.”

    Well-said. I think if Six Apart wants to re-gain their dominance in the host-your-own blogging market, they’ll need to start over with a new tool — but make it ridiculously easy for existing MT users to switch. The architecture of MT (Perl, cgi, static vs. dynamic, etc.) is just so antiquated and limiting. Everything they try to add to it feels like a hack. A good example is the PHP-based dynamic content serving they added a few versions ago. Grafting that PHP layer on top of the Perl core just felt…wrong.

    We all owe a lot to MT. It was one of the first and one of the best host-your-own blog apps ever. But, it’s run its course. I totally understand why people who are already on it stay on it (switching can be a real pain) — but for everyone else, it’s time to look elsewhere, I think.

  24. Guys…

    It’s been brought to my attention (and it’s a very good point) that I am not using the latest version of MT, so it’s quite possible MT has improved quite a lot since the version I’m on. I have used more recent version on other sites, but not the latest.

    So, keep that in mind when you read my comments. 🙂

  25. I’m a MT user since the beta days and now with a fair bit of experience not only using WordPress but making the big switch across from MT to WordPress. Honestly, after messing around with MT again recently – I’m thinking of switching back..

    After using and designing sites using MT you soon get a little tired of rebuilding everything so often. Switching to WordPress brings an incredible sense that everything is instant – make a change to your individual archive template – hit the button and bam – it’s there for all to view. Though if you make an error in your changes and hit refresh – you could easily find yourself staring at a blank page, which leads into a few minutes/hours of php debugging and trying to decipher the ridiculous template tags used in WP.

    After using WP for a while and especially when making any significant changes to the default templates or rolling your own, you soon find yourself tiring of the bunk WP template tags. Suddenly the MT tags are looking pretty good in comparison..

    MT appeared to make a big step when it introduced dynamic publishing, only to fall down as most plugins needed to be re-written from Perl into PHP and by that stage many developers had since either moved on or moth-balled their plugins. The porting of all MT template tags across to SMARTY was a brilliant, the lack of PHP plugins was perhaps the killer.

    Regarding comment spam – I’ve found WP’s Akismet solution worked a treat, though MT’s Spamlookup worked almost as well for me. I guess when the Akismet plugin for MT makes its debut everything will be roses once again. (Most issues I see related to MT and comments are not so much spam comments, rather the load said comments put on MT’s backend – and your perhaps shared server – as it groans to rebuilt your static-until-a-comment-is-left-then-its-dynamic template. Many hosts out there can get a little nancy when looking at the load-spikes for MT powered sites.)

  26. I’m a bit late to the comments, but wanted to say I’m a big fan of Textpattern. To me, it just makes sense the way it works. I’ve heard the same said by others about WordPress though, and don’t want to get into that argument. Anyway, I would highly recommend both for anyone looking to start a new site.

  27. I’ve used WordPress on a couple of sites, Textpattern on one and Expression Engine on another but none of them really FEEL right to me. They just don’t think they way I do. I went digging through the WordPress source to try and figure out how to do something quite specific and it looked horrendous, leaving me with a load of hacking to do. And open source documentation leaves something to be desired too… My friend said the same about the TxP code when he was implementing something for the article site we run. WP2 and TxP4 have come out since then and the docs seem to be getting better so it might be time to take another look.

    I ended up going with Symphony for my personal site because it seems to offer the more hardcore flexibility that I was looking for. It’s a little touchy at the moment and much of the functionality that people will want is still in development but it’s by far the best blogging/light CMS app I’ve used. It uses XSL for all the front end and you can plug whatever you want into the back as long as the output is XML. I did consider something like Typo or Django but I wanted a little bit more of a running start.

    My site used to run on a home rolled CMS and 4 years on I couldn’t make head or tail of how I’d written it! I ended up with a hash of old and rewritten code that was completely unmaintainable…

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.