How Movable Type Lost With Open Source

Tuesday Feb 22nd 2011 by Serdar Yegulalp
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Movable Type's fumbles offer a cautionary tale about the wrong way to use open source.

There's little in this world that' more saddening than telling a friend, "You blew it." But that's how I feel about Six Apart and their blogging / CMS system Movable Type.

They had a chance to use open source to make something really remarkable with their product, and all but squandered it.

I say this as a Movable Type user, which is why it pains me to say these things. I'd hate to think my loyalty was misplaced, because in the time I've used it I watched as one fellow user after another defected to competing products -- mainly Automattic and WordPress.

So what went wrong? For starters, it wasn't that Movable Type switched to an open source model. It was how they went about doing it.

Movable Type wasn't originally open source, but it was licensed liberally enough that it almost didn't matter. Many people could use it without paying for it, and for most people that was enough. But the licensing for version 3.0, released in 2004, placed far more emphasis on the user paying a licensing fee. It was still possible to get a free license, but on terms that didn't allow redistribution of the product.

Many of the "little" folks who had been using Movable Type up to that point started to get worried they would suddenly have to start paying licensing fees. It wasn't even the cost of the product that bugged them, but the principle of the thing: it felt like a bait-and-switch. Who's to say they wouldn't be given equally cavalier treatment in the future?

Faced with this, and with the rise of the unambiguously-licensed WordPress (GPLv2), a lot of Movable Type folks decamped and switched to that product, which began to thrive thanks to their input and usage. It wasn't until Movable Type version 3.3 released two years later that a free version for personal users was released.

By that point Six Apart seemed more interested in selling the product to business and enterprises than cultivating a groundswell of individual users. That is exactly the sort of thing open source thrives on, and which WordPress was harvesting to its advantage.

In late 2007 Six Apart created an explicitly open source version of Movable Type, based on version 4 of the product, and licensed under the GPL. The main differences between the commercial and open source editions were features designed specifically for enterprise users, like commercially-developed SEO add-ons.

It was a step in the right direction, and was welcomed by those who had been asking for such a thing, me included. But, again, it was too late to woo back the people who had already defected. For them, Movable Type was scorched earth.

And by that time, WordPress had already built a culture of open engagement with customers. There was a broad and growing palette of plugins, templates and other add-ons, created by people who had been in bed with the product for a good long time. (The gallery of templates for WordPress is something that's cited regularly as a reason why it's a superior product.)

Six Apart did go to some length to document their templating language and make it easier to convert WordPress templates to something Movable Type could use. But they waited too long to start doing those things on a scale that mattered, and by that time some really creative and inspiring template designs were coming out of the WordPress crowd.

WordPress also got something right early on that remains a point of trouble for Movable Type: make it easy for people to get on board with the software and stay on board. A WordPress installation can upgrade itself from a browser-based control panel with the push of a button. By contrast, Movable Type still has to be manually upgraded. It's too easy to get the process wrong, and so whenever a new point release came out I resigned myself to setting aside a day to upgrade and test.

That such manual work is still necessary is another sign of how most of what drove Movable Type's general direction seemed to focus on appealing to commercial customers, not the base of "in-the-trenches" users who were actually grappling with the product on a daily basis. Hence the add-ons for SEO and such, which most individual bloggers (me included) turned off the minute they installed the product.

When a company "does" open source, a lot of how they are perceived to approach it will shape things. Oracle's commitment to open source is perceived very differently from Red Hat's. Not just because of the size of one company vs. the other or their intended markets, but because Red Hat puts more of their money where their mouth is, while Oracle is inspiring more dissention than loyalty among open source folks.

In the same way, the open source side of Movable Type felt too much of the time like a way to give people a free version of the product without guilt -- not a way to allow people to give the company living feedback through their product. Too often it came off as a way to placate people instead of engage them.

Maybe Six Apart felt the crowd that was clamoring for more open-source-oriented engagement wasn't their customer base. But when you're dealing with open source in any form, it's a mistake to have such narrow definitions.

A number of Movable Type developers decided to independently do something about the direction of the product. They've forked the open source 4.x codebase of MT into a new product, Melody, which they are determined to have developed in a transparent and community-driven fashion (as opposed to the Six Apart top-down corporate-driven model). A 1.0 release is not quite fully baked yet. They're at beta 3 as I write this. But when it's done I'll be taking a closer look. I'm hoping it'll work as an incubator for ideas that never made it into the conventional product, as well as a spur for healthy, competitive development on Movable Type itself.

Because when you get down to it, I can't completely write off Movable Type. At its core it's a good program, with a lot of technical sophistication. But the power of the product needs to be brought to users in a more friendly way. I'd run out of fingers counting the number of times a product has failed because its engineers assumed mere technical superiority would be enough (e.g., OS/2 vs. DOS/Windows 3.x).

There needs to be more attention paid to taking the good things they have and making them absolutely irresistible to users: bloggers, search-engine wonks, pundits, Perl hackers, plugin authors, template designers, CSS codemonkeys. They're all users, not just "developers" or "contributors."

I don't doubt that Movable Type will enjoy continued success with its paying customers. What I wonder is whether or not it will once again become an attractive option for end users, for open source mavens, for people who want something that isn't WordPress for whatever reason. There's no inherent contradiction between building a product which can be sold to paying customers and having an enthusiastic user base contribute to its development. If anything, they can support each other all the more enthusiastically.

I hold out hope that Movable Type could still become a prime example of that, and with the company's recent change of ownership (they're now owned by Infocom of Japan) that could happen.

For now, though, if people pick WordPress first, I'm hardly going to blame them.

ALSO SEE: 20 New User Misconceptions about Linux

AND: The Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

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