Industrial-Strength Blogware: Movable Type
If you want to see just how far blogs have moved toward respectability, check out the customer list for Movable Type. The blogging software from Six Apart runs on newspaper sites like the Washington Post and USA Today, on manufacturer sites like Boeing and General Motors, on sites from Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, and Nokia and at Stanford University. Japanese customers include Panasonic, Nissan, Ricoh, Casio and Uniqlo. That’
In Japan, Movable Type has more than 10,000 commercial licensees-more than in the U.
In a review on Mashup.
Indeed, the typical Movable Type non-corporate customer is still a power user. Such is the case for Irish blogger Michele Neylon, whose blog on Movable Type 4 (www.
Neylon says that with MT4, large installs take fewer compute resources than with version 3. "In v4, Six Apart improved the mechanism significantly, so when I rebuilt my main blog last night after migrating it from WordPress, the server's load was hardly affected, even though there are over 1500 articles. If I'd try to do the same kind of thing on v3, it could have been quite painful. Version 4 is also more scalable because Six Apart rewrote the Movable Type's backend works using Six Apart's publishing queue for more efficiently processing internal requests to update the content, templates, or other updates.” According to Six Apart documentation, the queue is implemented through an open source toolset that was originally developed for the company's hosted services. "The queue can be run as a schedule task, checking a set number of minutes to see if there are tasks to be carried out. Or if you have a larger install, or like me, are just lazy, you can run the queue in the background as a persistent process that 'listens' for things to do.”
Another reason for Neylon's return to Movable Type has to do with administering multiple blogs. “In WordPress, I must log into each blog separately. And if there's a security update, I have to upgrade for each WordPress install. With Movable Type, I log in just once. By the time I finish migrating, I'll have 15 blogs, each with its own set of preferences, its own design, its own plug-ins enables-all running off a common back end."
Neylon says that both CMSs have large libraries of plug-ins, though Movable Type relies less on them for its core features. He argues that Movable Type plug-ins tend to be of higher quality, perhaps because they are written in Perl, rather than PHP. "PHP is a very accessible programming language-perhaps a bit too accessible" so it is more likely to produce plug-ins that are not well written. "Perl is more demanding, so it tends to attract better programmers. The other thing to bear in mind is that MT separates template tweaks from core functions. In practice that means that a non-programmer can safely modify their site's layout and design without having to touch the core. The way Six Apart has done this makes it more accessible and a lot more secure.”
s Anil Dash: on MT and MTOS
Anil Dash is a company evangelist for Six Apart in the best Guy Kawasaki tradition. Dash is a pioneering blogger: his first entry on his personal blog was back in July 1999 (about Prince showing up for a concert five hours late). Dash later moved from New York to San Francisco in 2004 to be closer to the company, returning three years later so that his wife, Alaina, could be closer to her job as general manager of the Serious Eats website (http://
s a lot of blogging software out there. Why Movable Type?
- When we started, our co-founders saw that there wasn’
t a tool for people who took blogging seriously. Back then, a number of us were using Blogger or Live Journal for personal blogs, which basically gave you a text box to type in. The original context for Movable Type was: “I have ideas I want to share, I’ m taking them seriously, and I want a professional-grade tool to do it with.” That has remained true over the past six years. We still focus on giving as much power as possible to users, and on being extensible through plug-ins, and, in the case of the open source product, through modifying the code. And we give you the ability to run an entire community of blogs, not just one.
- What parts of the MT architecture enable that?
- The database architecture, for one thing-you can use MySQL, which is what individual bloggers do, but also commercial databases such as those from Oracle and Microsoft. And the ability to do static pages is very important. That’
s a choice that people don’ t much understand in the personal blogging space. They say “who cares, I just need to get this page published and I don’ t want to wait to generate HTML pages.” But when you get unanticipated spikes in your traffic, you suddenly have to worry about scaling-unless you are using static Web pages, because of their low load on the server. Movable Type also supports dynamic publishing, but the default is that we would rather spend a little bit more time publishing and be much more resilient under load.
- One of the guiding principles of the development team is to never punish success. That means not penalizing people who want to add blogs as they succeed. If you look at the media networks that use Movable Type, from Time Magazine to Washington Post to Gawker, they all started with one or two blogs and took off from there. Never punishing success also means that if I get picked up on Digg, I can keep up with the increased demand. This actually happened to me a couple of weeks ago on my personal blog. I wrote a post that struck a nerve and suddenly I had 15,000 or 20,000 visitors in an hour. But there were no database load problems, no angry message from the hosting company. I didn’
t have to worry about that because of static pages.
- I want to ask you about the open source version. I’
m not even sure what to call it. Is it MTOS?
re not formally calling it MTOS, but certainly I think that’ s what the community has settled in on.
- How did it come about?
- We actually first talked pretty seriously about open sourcing Movable Type in early 2004 while we were working on Movable Type 3.
0. That was the most ambitious product launch we had ever done, but we just ran out of time.
- What was the motivation?
- One was philosophical-we like open source. That’
s where a lot of this stuff starts. You just get a gut feeling, and of course we knew that a lot of our core customers cared about open source. We also are big proponents of keeping ourselves honest by not locking users in. WordPress, for example, has always supported importing Movable Type’ s format. But they have never supported exporting, even though it is the de facto standard. When the time came for them to finally add export format, they created their own. If you look at the history of open platforms and data exchange, that’ s the world’ s oldest lock-in strategy. To be fair, the MT import format is really limited. It was created three or four years ago and we didn’ t anticipate that it should have been an XML format, and obviously it should have been extensible. So there are some reasons that it wasn’ t good enough. But as a basic data exchange format, it ended up being the default “copy and paste” of blogging.
- So avoiding customer lock-in was one reason. Another is that we have an enormous developer community of incredibly talented people.
- The people making the plug-ins?
- They are making plug-ins, but they also suggest fixes, and have done so since [Six Apart co-founder Ben Trott] was the lead coder. So we thought: why don’
t we just empower people to make those fixes as part of the distribution. In early 2003, Ben started putting out nightly builds of Movable Type. They were on the site and people were downloading them nightly.
- The license back then just kind of evolved-it hadn’
t been bounced off the lawyers. We wanted to be able to keep enough ownership of the code to be able to do a hosted property, which became Type Pad. So we typically did a lot of back and forth-what do you want to see, how would you like to implement it, what’ s the best way to do it, what do you think of these mock-ups? It hadn’ t occurred to us to go through that process with the license. So when we released Movable Type 3. 0, a lot of people balked at the license. It really hadn’ t changed; the license still was free for 90 percent of our users. But some people who had experienced success with their blogs now felt that they had to pay if they wanted to continue to succeed. This is a prime example of what happens when you don’ t communicate clearly.
- Another thing influencing MTOS was Live Journal, which was the earliest and most influential platform to combine social networking and blogging. Live Journal is now part of our company - we acquired them in early 2005. Brad Fitzpatrick and his team had started in 1998 with a completely open source platform under GPL. In doing so, they had invented a lot of the core technologies that helped create Web 2.
0. Before Live Journal, there was no service that let you add your friends to a list on the network, no ability to scale up to millions or tens of millions of dynamic page views online. The core technologies for database caching and the open source file system first implemented in Live Journal now underpin all of Web 2. 0.
- Live Journal was open source from the beginning, so did that become an influence on Movable Type?
- Absolutely. And it helped that all of the platform pieces in Live Journal were written in Perl. The open source components are now found on other platforms. If you look at Wikipedia and Craig’
s List and Slashdot and Digg and Face Book: they are all using parts of that Live Journal infrastructure to help scale up their site.
- How will the commercial and open source versions of your technology intersect?
s a pretty straightforward line. We want to make almost all of the core functionality open. We are going to create solutions on top of that that are not open source. For example, if you require an Oracle database driver, we can pretty much assume you are an enterprise customer. This seems like a natural division. Community features come in the form of inexpensive or free plug-ins that, say, let your users submit content to your blog. But if you want to do that on a large scale with thousands or tens of thousands of contributors, you are probably a publisher.
- How big a community of volunteer Perl developers can you put together?
- Are the plug-ins open source?
s totally the choice of the author. The vast majority of them are, and the ones that aren’ t are mostly still free. Some are purely commercial plug-ins. We find a lot of our plug-in developers going into tiered licenses that work as ours do, so that they are free for personal users and basic commercial users, with support and extended features available for a fee.
- Were the open source plug-ins Movable Type’
s way of testing the waters for MTOS?
- Yes, to some degree. Most of the first major open source plug-ins came from Six Apart employees. Brad Choate, out lead engineer on Movable Type, started as a plug-in developer in our community and all of his plug-ins were available as open source. That’
s something we’ ve always done. The very first plug-in that Ben ever created for Movable Type was an open source plug-in.
- What additional level of changes will MTOS allow?
- I don’
t think it will change that much. We’ ve already let people view and modify the code on their own server, though not distribute it. So from the first day Movable Type was available, people were saying: here’ s a change I want you to make, then passing over the modified code. That process works pretty well. We’ ve gotten patches from some of the largest companies in the world. But at a certain point, this approach became an arbitrary roadblock. People would want to submit a patch, but want to have the redistribution rights that an OSI license allows. We thought, “Okay, if you want that, we’ ll give you that.” The decision is not something that we struggled with.
- But with open source, we’
ve got more latitude. If you are fixing or improving core functionality, that will probably involve changes to the open source. If you are doing something more unusual, it will probably involve a plug-in.
- Could you give me an example?
- Right now, there are a couple of plug-ins that let you customize the fields in Movable Type. Lots of users want to do that, so those are clearly going to become patches for the core application. There are other tools for integrating with high-end content management systems like SharePoint and Interwoven. Those are specific to individual users and will likely remain part of plug-ins or solution packs. So the dividing line is a combination of user demand and how much complexity is added to the core platform.
- What we don’
t want is for an unusual feature to become a common use case. This is something most open source projects have not negotiated very well. If you look at when Mozilla first launched their pre-Firefox browser, the joke was that everything had a preference except for the things that had a preference to set the preference. We don’ t want to ever let ourselves get into that corner. By the time Movable Type version 3. 3 had come out, we had accumulated a lot of settings that had grown obscure over the previous years. Now, with the new architecture, most screens have half as many settings in Movable Type 4 as were on Movable Type 3.
- With open source coming into the picture, what’
s the business model for Movable Type?
- We offer paid licenses for a tested and QA’
d [quality assured] version of the application that comes with professional support, and will likely start to include bonus packs of things that people find valuable and are willing to pay for. On top of that, our core business model supports enterprise users, large communities and certain verticals like publishing, where blogging is a core part of the business. For Time magazine, the Washington Post, and Huffington Post, the large scale blogs running on Movable Type are critical business applications. For them, there are a lot of things you do around redundancy, scaling and workflow that are of high value, but would be superfluous for smaller publishers.
- Finally, I want to ask you about where blogs are headed in terms of social etiquette. Some good bloggers have quit because the online comments have been so harsh. Can the technology itself help?
- I think things are in the process of changing. If you look at traditional forum applications, the conversations are dominated by the people with the most free time on their hands-someone with an axe to grind or maybe someone who is just enthusiastic, but might not be the best informed person. And you get the scourge of forums, the same conversation running over and over because there’
s no way to look at old conversations-by topic or by category.
- Accountability is the big one. People leave better comments when they have a consistent name attached to them-it doesn’
t have to be the real one-when you can see a record of what they’ ve commented on, and when they are rewarded to do the right thing, as opposed to being punished when they do something wrong. When people know they are being held accountable, that this is not just a free-for-all, they behave better. We’ ve been criticized on this, but we are big advocates of being able to attach a consistent identity to a contributor. We developed a system called OpenID, in which you can use your URL for an identity. Two years ago, our team was drawing this idea up on a white board, and now it has been endorsed by Microsoft, AOL, Symantec, and Verisign; there are a hundred million open IDs out there-and I think it represents a fundamental shift. OpenID lets you say: “Here is a space on the Web that I control, and that’ s the identity I want to use. Everything tracks back to it.” You wouldn’ t let someone walk into your office without at least asking for an identity. There’ s a reason why these social norms have developed in the real world, and we’ re just trying to mimic that online.
- And then there is the simple stuff: the ability to rate and recommend comments, and to promote good commenter into authors by giving them more privileges.