I’m really pleased to see Sixapart‘s new direction with Movable Type. I haven’t really seen that much talk about it around the blogs (which I only keep half an eye on these days, mostly because I’m busy on my own projects and building sites for other people), and I guess that’s an indication of how far the app has fallen in mindshare over the past few years out amongst the blogs.
Of course, there’ve been changes in the weblogging demographics, too, changes that Sixapart decided to chase with Typepad, the Livejournal aquisition, and Vox, possibly to the detriment of MT. The great majority of weblogs these days, I think it would be uncontroversial to say, are run by people who aren’t particularly web-savvy, who don’t care about the technology substrate, who don’t write code and don’t want to, and who are (and this continues to surprise me, because middling as my skills are, I’m in love with design) effectively blind to design. They’re writing their hearts out, or posting pictures of their kitties, or socializing, or trying to build readership and get famous, or just make a buck.
This is in contrast to the first wave of webloggers, who started playing with this stuff from, say, ’98 to around 2001. The tail end of that wave was when I hopped on. Back then, a lot of people were rolling their own content management systems, or (most of them) using Blogger or MT, basically. The relative complexity of MT was no great barrier to a lot of these folks, many of whom were techno-capable (or at least design-oriented) already. That’s changed.
Which is all as it should be, to some extent, perhaps. Since back near the beginnings of the Blog Era, I’ve argued that it’s all about the words. I’m starting to think that that’s less true that I once thought, and wasn’t even as true as I thought it was back when I thought it.
Use your words, stav.
So tools like Blogger continue to present a low barrier to entry, joined by LJ and Typepad and Vox and the very cool Tumblr and hosted WordPress and all the rest, and down in the moshpit, social stuff like MySpace and Facebook. WordPress appears, at least from where I stand, to have emerged triumphant in the host-your-own space, judging only from the enormous number of plugins and themes and tools available out there for it, and the number of high-profile old and new-school personal-website-maintainers that have adopted it.
I’ve tried to like it, but I can’t get my head around the way it cobbles together pages, and I keep coming back to MT.
But I’ve felt in the past few years of the MT Diaspora that I was one of the lonely few, those last couple of people at the party who just won’t go the hell home. I spent a great deal of time learning MT’s ins and outs, learning to love the power of it, and getting pretty handy with it, if I do say so myself. Every time I thought about a new web project (most of which haven’t seen the light of day, of course) that needed some form of structured content, I could always work out a way that MT would handle it. I still love the app, but I started to feel the way that people who never could make the jump from Wordperfect felt way back when, maybe, when it started to become less a de facto standard than a quirky outlier.
I watched Sixapart make all manner of bad and incomprehensible decisions (from the outsider’s perspective, of course). It’s unclear whether the mis-step and ensuing kerfuffle of the new and poorly thought-out licensing policy they introduced a couple of years back was the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning, but things started to seem to go sideways for MT around that time. And even though it turned out that a lot of the pushback and outrage amongst bloggers came as a result of poor corporate communication about the decision rather than the actual licensing changes, it was too late. The water was muddied. Successive revamps of the Movable Type section of the Sixapart site seemed like it was deliberately designed to show off the content-management aspects of MT in the worst possible light, and had to be offputting to anyone thinking of trying the application for the first time. Things became harder to find, the plugin directory was one-dimensionally hard-categorized, tag code examples (if you could find them) dried up and began disappearing entirely, it all seemed complicated and confusing, when the site that showcased the tool should have been showing it off in the best light.
Despite Anil Dash showing up everywhere MT was mentioned, it seemed, sometimes, and being consistently helpful and reasonable (Hi, Anil!), it has seemed for a couple of years that he was the only person left who actually gave a damn about the old-school MT community. I’m sure that impression was far from the truth of the matter, but it was discouraging, despite Anil’s best efforts.
Until recently. Sixapart seems, to me, to be doing almost everything right with the new open-sourcing of a basic version of MT. They’re running the beta wide-open, there’s a nice big download button on the front page of the new movabletype.org website (as opposed to hiding the free version so deep in the last few revs of the .com site that I couldn’t find the damn thing sometimes), they’ve put put up a new MTTags.com site with a whole bunch of reference materials (two tips there — 1) don’t link back to the execrable old movabletype.com reference materials ‘for more information’ please and 2) put a link to the MTTags site in a visible place on the movabletype.org site — I had to search through old posts to find the URL!).
As far as the new application itself goes, well, it’s evolutionary. I’m not overly thrilled or particularly disappointed, but I am happy to see that they’re rethinking some things. The widgets still seem like a half-baked afterthought to me, and the theme management is still opaque to me (which doesn’t matter, because I like to do my own css), but there are some good and interesting ideas there. I’ll continue to use it, of course, unless they break it horribly. But all indications are that they’re listening this time, and taking as much care as they can to make sure we know that.
The most important thing to me, though, is that MT 4.0 is going to have an open-source version, one with no licensing restrictions. I’ll be able to use MT guilt-free to build sites for people, and if they want to buy a license later, that’s up to them, regardless of what they use the site for. That makes me happy, because I still think that of all the tools in the same class that I’ve tried, MT is the one that works for me, and that I feel most comfortable building sites on.
Is it too little, too late? I don’t know. I’m sure there are a lot of other people who’ve hung on, hoping for an MT Renaissance. And I hope that the kind of community that once existed around the tool, all plugins and widgets and themes mutual aid society, like the one that has grown up around WordPress, will grow again. We’ll see.