Sun, Sep
16
2007

Movable Type 4.0 Reviewed

Sun, Sep 16, 2007

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Movable Type was the venerable old man of the blogging application world. In its heyday, it was the obvious choice for anybody moving off of a Blogger account into something more serious — your own domain name, and a blogging application that sat on your server, that stayed up as long as your website stayed up. The personal license was free, and it was all managed by a young couple and a handful of employees, the big success story of the blogosphere.

In the past three years, however, in the eyes of some people, the bloom faded from Movable Type’s rose. Version 3.0 initially angered users with its complicated and expensive pricing scheme. Then, after a rush of updates and new features, Six Apart settled into a quiet routine. As months drew into years, with no significant upgrades to the product, more and more users felt that time was passing Movable Type by. The open source program Wordpress was gathering fans, and some were calling Movable Type a neglected, antiquated product.

I was not one of those people. For months, I’d run this blog using Movable Type 3.34, and it was a remarkably stable system. The only flaw that I could see was the vulnerability of the program’s search feature to spam attacks, which completely destroyed my relationship with GoDaddy. Otherwise, the product was easy to work with, managed my large blogs effectively, why mess with success? Though I could understand what others were complaining about when other software programs update themselves every few months, it seems. In other things, I am an upgrade junkie, and I was feeling a little bored. As SixApart concentrated on the corporate side of its enterprise, was Movable Type becoming a neglected product?

Then, a few months ago, I signed on to be a beta-tester for Movable Type 4.0. Right from the first version, it was apparent that SixApart had made a great leap forward. Everything had changed. And while there were costs and benefits associated with this, it was still an interesting, even fun, time to be a Movable Type user.

The first change that every Movable Type user sees upon logging into version 4.0 is the new interface. It has been completely redesigned, full of bells and whistles, such as drop-down menus, new buttons and a slick new look. But appearances aren’t everything. The fourth version of Movable Type includes a bundle of new features that dramatically enhances the blogging experience.

Important Features

Movable Type 4.0 incorporates several major new features that are worth the wait. These include genuine previews using a blog’s own template. Previously, one had to download the plugin LivePreview to see how an unpublished post looked on the screen, but now it is part of the core functionality.

Another significant feature (and Dan probably wishes that I’d upgraded his Movable Type a few days earlier because of it) is autosaving. Now, posts are saved automatically, and can be recovered if your browser crashes, or you somehow lose the work on your screen. Simply click back to your blog, and you’ll see a notice telling you that an entry has been autosaved, and you only need to click on the link to recover it.

There is also an enhanced comment registration interface. Now users don’t need to have a TypeKey account in order to log in and post their comment without having to wait for it to clear through the moderation process. If you have a Vox account, an OpenID account or a LiveJournal account, you can log in using these, and once I set your identity to ‘trusted’, comments will be published immediately. I can even register users directly through the Movable Type interface, and I may set something up to do this once I get a spare moment.

Finally, Movable Type 4.0 adds “file and asset management”. This way, every image and every file you upload to your blog is now logged and can be called back to use again in future posts (this does not retroactively add in the images which you’ve posted beforehand, of course; that would be impossible). I get the sense that the folks at SixApart haven’t finished developing this new feature, however. The list of “assets” quickly gets unmanageable, and there is little one can do to sort or manage the items. SixApart has left plenty of room for plugin developers to add fuction to this feature, however, and the asset management tool already offers up the ability of creating a “widget” of photo gallery thumbnails to put on the sidebar of your blog.

Similarly, Movable Type 4.0 allows one the ability to reply directly to comments, but this feature is not easily added. Right now, I have the ability to reply to comments by virtue of being the blog administrator (the replying happens in Movable Type). Such a feature is not easily added for blog users, and the default templates offer no means of threading comments. Again, however, plugin developers are stepping into the breach, and there is every possibility that SixApart will add to this interesting feature in later versions.

I also believe that SixApart has enhanced security on this version of Movable Type 4.0. Comment spam attacks have been kept to a minimum, and the mt-search vulnerability that destroyed my Movable Type application on GoDaddy and hampered my HostGator installation, seems to have been solved, to the point where I’ve now restored search functionality on this blog.

SixApart’s Movable Type 4.0 introduces several powerful new features that enhance the blogging experience. I’ve already made use of a number of these. In all, blogging has become a lot more fun as a result of the upgrade, but the upgrade job isn’t done yet. And the new features and new approach come with some cost.

The Costs

The fact that Movable Type changes almost everything for version 4.0 means that users face a considerable learning curve as they upgrade their blogs from version 3.34. The interface takes some getting used to, although fellow-user Greg Staples shrugged this off and called the interface intuitive and easy to learn. Several plugins break, and plug-in developers have been slow to upgrade.

Most importantly, Movable Type also introduces an entirely revised template tag structure, and a new set of default templates. Styles that used to work for version 3.34 now have to be thoroughly updated, and that can take a while. Fortunately, Movable Type treats all established content as sacred, so blogs written in the 3.34 format aren’t altered, and continue to work under the new system. Still, it took a couple of days to migrate my custom blog templates over to the new style. New users won’t have this problem, of course, and Movable Type has made a number of attractive new template designs available for people to use.

Finally, as noted before, some of the new features are not implemented as well as I think they should be. The asset management feature is a wonderful device, but its implementation makes the feature difficult to use after you’ve uploaded a large number of files. There are also some customization questions. SixApart nicely provided me with the ability to automatically wrap text around any pictures I upload, but the specifications appear to be under lock and key. I can’t go in and change the margins around a picture, for instance, without rewriting code, and there appears to be no ability to dump the code altogether and just receive a single IMG SRC line of code without the bells and whistles.

But on balance, this is the only drawback to Movable Type 4.0, in my opinion: a steep learning curve and features that have been implemented unfinished. Those I have talked to don’t find the new interface to have that harsh of a learning curve, and indications are that SixApart will upgrade these new features, making them really powerful and useful by the time 4.2 or 4.3 rolls around.

Conclusions

Overall, Movable Type 4.0 puts the blogging platform back into the spotlight. The interface is slick and new, the features powerful, and the user experience significantly enhanced. Now it’s Wordpress that’s playing a bit of catch up. Best of all, the platform has opened the doors for significant activity in plugin development. Already, several neat little programs are available to customize the interface or add new features. I’m considering a few. Anybody here like the idea of threaded comments? Perhaps my fellow users would like visitor stats displayed on their blog interfaces, or Google Adsense earnings? The possibilities are increasing every day.

I admit I was tempted to join the exodus and try out WordPress (and I remain quite impressed by the rival, open-source system), but Movable Type 4.0 makes me glad that I stayed with what worked. My loyalty has been rewarded and reinforced. And I’m content to wait a while before we get Movable Type 5.


Features? And Further Reading

So, what features would you like me to add to this blog? Do you want the ability to rate posts? Or do you like the idea of registering on my server in order to post comments immediately on my blog? Let me know what sort of things you’d like, and I’ll see what I can do.

If there are features you would like to add to your Movable Type installation, once you’ve upgraded to Movable Type 4.0, this is the place to start, although these guys provide a great number of excellent new plugins.


And In Other News…

Things have been busy here, making posting sporadic, but I have some good things to announce. I’ve been working on two websites that can now see the light of day. One is my mother’s official book website, Passage to Mythrin. I designed it for her as a birthday present, and I’m quite pleased with the results. More books will be added as my mother’s young adult fantasy series continues to develop.

I’ve also done some work for my mother-in-law Rosemarie O’Connor, putting together this simple site promoting a concert by John McDermott in Kansas City that my mother-in-law is organizing. The bulk of my work here has been producing flyers and advertisements. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but it looks like we’re making a splash.

Work is continuing on The Night Girl, but also on whipping The Young City into submittable shape. I expect to be submitting the latter to my editor by the end of this month, so wish me luck!


On This Day

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