October 2010 Archives

Why Movable Type — 3. The Communities

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(This post is part of a series on why Movable Type is an excellent choice as both a CMS and a blog engine. The previous post was Myths, FUD and reality about Movable Type, the next post will be The Movable Type Publishing Platform.)

Meet the parents

First, a little bit of history to give some context on the troubled relationship between Movable Type and its parents. (N.B. what follows is based on my perception as an outsider, and this might be very different from what insiders have experienced. It is important to understand that the perception that people like me have had from Six Apart has shaped the MT community in a big way. Feel free to correct me on facts, but don’t forget that acts are not always perceived as intended.)

Movable Type started as a ‘personal publishing system’ in 2001. Crafted by Ben and Mena Trott in a great combination of engineering, design and elegance, it hit the ground running and became in no time the must-have blog software for the demanding blogger. Ben and Mena quickly formed a company called Six Apart to grow MT into something bigger. TypePad followed suit in 2003 as the hosted version of Movable Type. This marked a turning point in what would unfold next: Six Apart began as a software company but very quickly pursued what I’d call an ‘eyeballs strategy’. The acquisition of LiveJournal, SplashBlog, the creation of Vox when blogging was fading to social networks, Rojo, all those were serving a primary goal: accumulate page views on Six Apart’s web servers1. I understand it was also about talent acquisition, however those were serving the eyeballs strategy. The creation of Six Apart Media, an advertisement network was the most obvious attempt at monetizing this traffic2.

I’ve been watching Movable Type take a life of its own starting many years ago. Through Loïc Le Meur (who I knew long before he joined Six Apart), I met Andrew Anker who introduced me to Barak Berkowitz (then CEO) while I happened to be in San Francisco for the Apple WWDC in 2004. I interviewed for a job at Six Apart, and there was what I remember as a quid pro quo. Barak asked me what I thought of MT, and I made the case for MT as a great CMS. He didn't look enthused3. I watched the ‘money types’ managing the company (both in the US and in Europe), the growing gap between the promises (“We’ll grow MT alongside TypePad and feed the improvements back to MT”) and the reality4, the eyeballs strategy, the early and inherently doomed attempts at offering IT services to a few big media companies by providing them with their own copy of TypePad on premises, or later on by buying Apperceptive (and then competing with their own partners)… All this convinced me that although the company was staffed with passionate and competent people, MT didn't fit the business direction the company was taking. It was pursuing a half-hearted development of MT — not that the people working on it were half-hearted, but MT was not, in both appearance and acts, on any top manager’s radar. Except for a few months in 2004 during the great MT3.0 debacle, where they tried to monetize the software like an enterprise one, alienating the individual users without really matching the kind of ‘corporate-CIO-compatible’ game they were attempting to play5.

All this to explain why no one should have expected Six Apart Inc. to stand up for Movable Type as if it were a strategic product for them. I’m tempted to say that it’s never been strategic, save for bootstrapping the startup company and TypePad. It has survived thanks to the passion and energy of a small group of extremely dedicated people within Six Apart, who worked in an environment that wasn't hostile but not particularly supportive either.

However, in an interesting twist while the mothership was struggling with its business model, the Japan subsidiary took over the entire MT business in 2009 for an excellent reason: it is the leading CMS there and they are making money with it. While the occidental MT world watches the death of Six Apart fearing for MT’s future, I see a business entity with a clear, focused and lucrative business model is which MT is not an alien thing.

For the first time in its history, MT is now a logical and core product of a profitable business entity. How’s that for a change? Take my advice: see the positive side of this and don't waste too much time worrying about the new life of SAY Media with respect to MT, it has no reason to be more relevant than Six Apart US or Europe have been before6. Six Apart Inc. is dead? Long live Six Apart Japan!

The external communities

There are four different groups hanging in different places:

I distinguish those communities, because they are different across profiles, interests and countries. They are seemingly big in Japan (where MT is a bigger hit than anywhere else), small in the US (in comparison to WP) and virtually non-existent in France for example7. Six Apart used to rely a bit too much on the MTOS-dev community to provide documentation and community support, and that wore out even more the time-constrained hardcore developers. The result is that the knowledgable experts do not have lots of time to answer the newbie questions, dismissing the ones that beg for “RTFM” as an answer, and leaving an impression that the community — often mistaken by users as “just the forums” — is small and unhelpful.

The truth, I think, is twofold.

First, while there is a certain coherence between the first three communities above — professionals are not all developers but all developers are professionals and both cater to enterprise clients — the users community is mainly composed of individual users, often beginners. I know that the Melody folks are very willing to help the individual user, and they are not alone. But I also know for a fact, being someone who sells his time, that time is the most precious and least renewable resource I have, and the vast majority of MT professionals do not spend time on the users forums (I will not blame them).

Therefore, the MT community is an elitist one, which will ignore the random guy who cannot bother to read the manual but will be extremely helpful with whoever has shown a true interest and understanding of the platform. Clearly, starting with “Where do I put /mt-static/?”, “Error 500, help me!!!” or "I hate Perl” will not get you anywhere with time-starved professionals who have bothered to read the manual and a book or two. But once you have crossed the chasm, you'll be surprised at how easily people share and give on the MTOS-dev, ProNet and Melody lists. I have always been helped there, and amazed to see how far some people are willing to go to get you out of a problem with MT.

To me, this community would of course be even better if the number of English-speaking experts was higher, but it remains live and helpful. I also consider that its elitist nature is actually a good point. I know this isn't a popular view (by definition!) but the last thing the MT community needs IMO is an invasion of random newbies who'd better stay away from fiddling with a web server, lest a software like MT. The Japanese MT community seems to be outnumbering the rest of us, but the barrier of language makes it practically invisible to the rest of the world. Six Apart Japan is aware of this problem, and there are efforts done by them and the community to overcome this issue.

Lastly, a better understanding of the MT publishing platform would go a long way to help dissipate the confusion of many users about MT as a blog engine on one side, and as a content management system on the other. This will be the subject of the next post: the Movable Type Publishing Platform.

(This is a work in progress, please stay tuned and pardon the occasional edit.)

  1. Guess what is the only Six Apart web publishing product that produces content not hosted by Six Apart, and doesn't fit the eyeballs strategy.
  2. In effect, SAY Media is the merger between Six Apart Media and a former video company trying to shift its business model to exactly the same thing: Have eyeballs? We’ve got ads to serve ’em. Have ads? We’ve got eyeballs! Ad libitum.
  3. Or so I think. I was pitching for a product manager role with a clear interest in MT, they were looking for a more marketing type. Soon after, they hired Michael Sippey as VP of product.
  4. TypePad had very early on a great, simple and user-friendly drag-n-drop interface allowing non-technical people to customize the layout of their blogs. It never ended up in MT except partially in the Widget manager.
  5. I’m glad they got back to their senses and kept the prices reasonably low (except for some short-lived variations like MTCS which were outrageously expensive), because this is what helped me and other independent service providers build a healthy business around MT (as in ‘interesting work and good money from happy and loyal clients’).
  6. What I wrote above about company relevance does not apply in the slightest to the MT folks at Six Apart worldwide. They are there, as passionate and helpful as always, even the most discreet among them will sometimes chime in to help someone, and most of those who have been laid off Six Apart at difficult times remain active participants of the community (an excellent sign IMO, I can't even think of a former Six Apart employee who went negatively vocal against MT the product).
  7. Where Six Apart Europe used to be headquartered, QED for its relevance to MT :p.

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