I have had the pleasure of testing out the three beta releases of Movable Type 3.3. I’m actually using the final release candidate as I type this. The public release will be available soon once the SixApart crew finish some cosmetic cleanups and updates to the documentation, but I’m told this version will be identical to the public release, so I feel competent enough to give this a review..
There has been some criticism of Movable Type in some quarters. After releasing version 3.2 last August, development went a little silent. SixApart invested in a number of initiatives, including upgrades to its subscriber service Typepad and deals with big companies like Yahoo. As months passed with not even stability upgrades, some bloggers felt that the software was stagnating. Some even migrated to WordPress, citing that software’s passionate user community and its frequent upgrades.
I never understood the sentiment that software had to change (rapidly) or die. I like the new car smell of upgraded software as much as the next individual, but the fact remains that Movable Type 3.2 was a robust and stable program. It served my purpose as a blogging tool. Comment spam was under control, templates could be easily modified, everything worked. What did the impatient users want?
Mind you, after nine months, it was fun to see the version number on my installation of bump from 3.2 to 3.3. The upgrade itself offers a number of new and interesting features that make this upgrade a significant improvement on the user experience.
Movable Type 3.3 continues SixApart’s improvement of its installation and upgrade procedures, which are now a lot less frightening than they were when I was using Movable Type 2.5. The configuration file in version 3.2, which was already simplified from previous versions, has been reduced in 3.3 to just three simple user actions. Security has also been enhanced, with new users on new installations no longer having to log in as the default user “Melody Nelson”, a procedure which always struck me as particularly iffy. The user interface continues to improve, with more features now available with a quick click from each blog’s main menu.
These improvements would have been reason enough to upgrade from version 3.2 to 3.3, but SixApart does not stop there. Movable Type 3.3’s best improvements offer new features which both make it easier for new users to get blogging, and which add new toys for old users to play with. Movable Type 3.3 now offers a new set of standardized templates, and they’ve invested in a plugin called Stylecatcher (bundled with the installation programs) that gives users access to a variety of new styles which they can switch to with a quick upload and the press of a button.
For longtime users, the biggest improvement offered by Movable Type 3.3 is its newfound support for tags. Blog tags have long allowed bloggers to index and categorize their posts with a set of easy-to-search keywords that can be picked up by services like Technorati. Movable Type already offered users the ability to tag posts with keywords or to categorize them, but this behaviour did not match what others bloggers have achieved through Technorati.
Rather than change the functionality they already had, SixApart simply added a new layer to Movable Type’s architecture. This may be an example of software bloat, but it was the best compromise to add functionality, without compromising the work users may have done in the past with the original features. I can see tags replacing Movable Type keywords in short order, however, as they are just so neat. The program allows users to type in tags by hand; there is also an autocomplete feature to allow you to select tags you’ve added before. Movable Type automatically puts these tags at the end of each post, making each tag clickable, pulling up search results listing all other posts in your blog which contain that tag.
Another feature offered by Movable Type 3.3, this one of most benefit to new users, is the Widget Manager. For those who use the default templates, widget managers allow users to quickly and easily add little pieces of code into your sidebar. This saves you from having to mess with your template code. For those who don’t mind getting your hands dirty, Movable Type allows you to create your own widgets, thus simplifying your own template construction. This was an impressive feature, but I did find that it took up a fair chunk of my server resources whenever I saved a post and rebuilt a page. As I’m a competent coder, I didn’t need the Widget Manager, but those who are new to Movable Type and whose hosts offer a fair amount of resources, will really appreciate this.
Finally, Movable Type 3.3 has support for feeds. With the new MT Feeds plugin, bundled with the installation, you can now add any off-server RSS feed to your blog template. This functionality includes Activity Feeds, which many in the Movable Type community are excited about, but I probably won’t use.
Add to this the ability to change one’s search templates, and this is a solid upgrade that could have been called Movable Type 4.0.
However, the folks at SixApart seem to believe in not overstepping themselves. After the controversy that surrounded the debut of Movable Type 3.0, this upgrade was a low key affair. The Beta test was done quickly and professionally and produced a stable product with an improved interface. I expect this may be the last new development we’ll see to SixApart’s flagship product, possibly for the next nine months. But Movable Type is the sleeping giant of blog software, and it is comfortable enough that it doesn’t need to prove itself. I look forward to version 3.4, but it will come out when it’s good and ready, and not before.