My thoughts on MovableType 3.0.

Now that MT3 is in beta and the restrictions on public use and discussion about it have been lifted, I think it’s safe for me to post my thoughts on the latest version. To avoid boring those of you who are not bloggers and therefore unconcerned with the development of blogging packages I’ll sum things up first and then expound on that summary in the extended entry. So what do I think of MovableType 3.0? It’s a bit of a disappointment.

Namely I’m disappointed by what isn’t in MT3 more so than by what is. I had high hopes for the 3.0 version of MovableType and this was especially true after the debut of TypePad. As I understand it, TypePad is based on MT code and it has a lot of very cool features that are currently missing from MovableType such as TypeLists (allowing blogrolls, music lists, and book lists to be easily incorporated into your blog), photo albums, moblogging, post scheduling, role-based author permissions, and search and replace within posts just to name some of the better options.

Many of these things, and much more, were promised for the fabled MovableType Pro which was due back in the summer of 2003 and would come with a price attached. A paid version of MT is perfectly understandable given that TypePad is a paid service itself and it would be somewhat counter-productive to put out a free version of MT with the same features found in their commercial offering. Pricing for TypePad is very reasonable so a lot of us were expecting that MT Pro would also be very reasonable. Yet MT Pro is currently still vaporware and there’s been no real indication from anyone at Six Apart that it’s even under development at this time.

I mention all of this because I recall reading something at the MovableType website shortly after the announcement of MT3 that suggested it was going to be largely what MT Pro was intended to be and this got my hopes up. It’s entirely possible I misconstrued something in the discussions that followed the announcement and I never honestly expected MT3 to have all of the stuff that was promised for Pro, but a bump to full 3.0 status implied there would be some major new features in the next release so I figured some of the long lusted after goodies would finally come to pass. Chief among them being user registration, but I was also very much hoping to at least have something along the line’s of TypePad’s photo album feature to play with.

When MT3 was officially announced in December 2003 the primary features listed in the announcement were as follows:

  1. Comment registration.
  2. Improved comment and TrackBack management.
  3. New API hooks for plugin developers.
  4. User interface rebuilt using CSS.
  5. Support for the Atom API.

And that’s it. Still, there was reason for hope as the announcement went on to say the following:

In addition to the above, we’ll be integrating some features into 3.0 that we’re not yet ready to announce, but which we know will be very exciting to MT users. Additionally, for those interested in posting from mobile devices, we expect this to be a welcome release.

Let’s take these in turn.

1) The comment registration turned out to be TypeKey, which has already generated quite the stir, and not the full blown user registration system I was hoping for. It’s not a bad solution for what it does and I don’t have any big problems with making use of it, but as a solution to comment spam it’s only really effective if you require everyone who comments to have a TypeKey account or you’re willing to moderate every comment left by someone who doesn’t have one. If you just leave comments open and unmoderated as they were under the previous versions of MT then the problem of comment spam once again rears its head. I’m already busy removing comment spam every few hours on the various blogs I host since switching to MT3 and I can only hope that Jay Allen is able to port his MT Blacklist plugin in record time.

The other problem I have with TypeKey is that it’s very limited in what you can do with it beyond having some centralized server say “yep, this person has a valid TypeKey account.” I was hoping for a robust site-local user registration that would give benefits to regulars who stop by daily by allowing for things such as the ability to track all new threads with new comments since their last visit. That would be cool. Instead TypePad accomplishes a very limited goal and there’s much debate at how well it’ll even do that.

2) The improvement in the comment and trackback management is quite good and very welcomed as it has already made cleaning up comment spam much easier. I’ve never had much need to clean up trackbacks, though I suppose I could be bothered to delete the occasional duplicate ping that shows up. This is one of the big successes of MT3 in my opinion.

3) Not being a plugin developer the benefits of this won’t be immediately apparent until folks start writing plugins specifically for MT3. As I understand things, this new plugin system allows for a lot more integration between MT3 and any plugins you install including adding links to configuration and documentation right into your MT user interface. It’s possible that this may be MT3’s saving grace in some respects, but more on that later.

4) While having a UI that’s all CSS is nice from a standard compliance standpoint, this is hardly something I’d consider a major feature worth trumpeting over. Compliant or not, the old MT interface worked just fine. Maybe I missed it, but I can’t recall anyone wishing desperately for a complete rewrite of the interface in pure CSS.

5) Atom API support is another one of those things that is nice to have, but not exactly something I think a whole lot of people were clamoring for. I’m assuming this means support for using Atom clients to post content to your blog as there was already a perfectly fine Atom template for 2.661. At this time I don’t know of any Atom clients to try this out with and I suppose it’s a chicken and the egg issue where there wouldn’t be any clients until someone had something out there that would use it, but again it’s value is elusive at the moment.

That’s about the extent of the new stuff in MT3. Granted, there’s been a lot of improvement in the code in general including a speeder rebuild time in most situations (using MTEntries tags inside of MTArchives tags appears to eliminate this speed up) and for all of its seeming simplicity the integration of TypeKey has been a bit of a headache for the developers so it’s not like there hasn’t been a lot of work put into MT3, but there’s nothing here that makes one go “Wow! THIS is a GREAT update!” It feels more like a 2.7 version, not a 3.0. There’s been nothing in the way of additional features that weren’t mentioned in the announcement and there’s nothing I can see that has anything to do with posting from mobile devices, both of which were tantalizingly hinted at in the announcement.

That said, this is still a beta product and with the new plugin API being much more integrated into MT than in previous versions it’s entirely possible that Six Apart could surprise us with official plugins adding support for all manner of things once MT3 officially launches to the general public. During the Alpha testing there was a feature included in the package (now absent from the Beta version) that came as a plugin in part as a demonstration of how new features could be incorporated into the core program. Even if Six Apart doesn’t put out said plugins after launch there’s nothing stopping the many excellent plugin authors for taking up the slack. Six Apart has already said it’s possible to add in a completely different authentication system to MT3 to use instead of TypeKey which suggests all manner of highly integrated plugins are possible. As an out-of-the-box upgrade to 2.661, however, it’s not exactly anything to get giddy about.

Some of the things I was hoping to see in MT3 are as follows:

  • Subcategories. My category list is getting long enough and has enough topics close enough in focus that I would really benefit from a subcategory option. There is a plugin out that does this for the older versions, but it would have been nice to have it built in.
  • Threaded comments. With the length of some of the discussions here on SEB this would be REALLY useful.
  • Some form of photo album. You can fake this using a separate blog and custom templates, but while I understand it folks like my sister wouldn’t and she’s the one who’d love to have a photoblog.
  • An alternative to blogrolling.com. TypeLists of all three types would be wonderful, but I’d be happy with just a good blogroll alternative on it’s own. Again, possible to fake using a separate blog.
  • A method for site regulars to see all the new comments on all the threads since their last visit.
  • Custom entry fields. Just because.

Some of those things aren’t even planned for MT Pro, but any one of them would have raised my opinion of MT3 considerably. Again, in the interests of fairness, I need to point out that this is still beta and it’s still possible we could be surprised by the final release, but I’m not optimistic that this is going to happen as no one at Six Apart has given so much as a hint that it’s likely. MT3 is still a very good upgrade in many respects, but it’s not the gee-whiz lookitallthegoodies upgrade I was hoping for. The new plugin API gives good reason to hope that third parties will put out some amazing new plugins that shouldn’t require any hacking of the code so perhaps the best is still yet to come.

11 thoughts on “My thoughts on MovableType 3.0.

  1. I’m a photographer, not a coder. I’m using Greymatter for my blog, but I’ve often thought of moving up to MT. Greymatter was super easy to install (all web based) and even easier to customize. Now that I’m familiar with the way it works, I’m scared to move to a completely different system. I’m not sure what my point was going to be, but I guess I’m just asking if you guys think the learning curve and time I’ll need to spend would be worth it. One of the main reasons is that I really want to do a cool photoblog and one of my favorites uses MT: http://jinkyart.com.au/

  2. You made a very interesting point about plugins, that I never thought of, and indeed I hope that they will bring some good extra functionality.

    It raises the possibility that Six Apart deliberately left out some features like Photo Albums and TypeLists because MT is quite a big app already, taking up 2MB alone (before you even post anything). Having official plugins that add these features, would allow those who wanted the extra features to get them should they want them, but those who don’t want everything don’t have to sacrifice many megs of space just to get a basic blog going. My first host account only had 20MB, if MT had taken up a quarter of that I’d have looked at another package.

    There’s also the issue with server compatibility - if your host hasn’t got Image::Magick or NetPBM, and you can’t enable it, then the Photo Album function is somewhat limited (I fall into this category). Maybe Six Apart shyed away from these advance features for fear that they wouldn’t work on a good number of setups.

    Still, a very useful and well-written article, Les, thank you .

  3. I’ve yet to get my site updated to 3.0, but after reading this, I might end up holding off until I see better news on the beta’s blog.

  4. No, I haven’t sent it off to them. I don’t think it would make much difference. Either they have stuff their holding close to their chest or they don’t and I doubt they’d change the version number just cause I’m being whiney about it.

  5. Ironically, I just noticed today that they’ve announced three new features for TypePad yesterday that I was hoping I’d see in MovableType 3.0.

    Filemanager

    We’ve introduced a powerful File Manager that allows you to delete and manage files that you’ve uploaded, along with a streamlined interface for uploading new files into any of your folders. The File Manager is available for use for Basic, Plus, and Pro users (in “Control Panel > Files”). This allows your to delete files that you’ve uploaded to their account, navigate through the folder structure of your weblogs, and upload new files directly to anywhere in your account.

    Inserting Image/File into weblog posts

    Looking for the old “Upload File” link in the Weblog tab? The “Weblog > Post > Upload File” functionality has been replaced with easier-to-use, and more dynamic, “Insert Image” and “Insert File” buttons for easily inserting images and files into posts. These changes allow you to insert an image or file directly into a post, rather than having to copy HTML into the post. The new interface also gives you additional options for the alignment of images, whether images are opened in popup windows, etc.

    Moblogging for Basic Users

    Moblogging functionality is now available to Basic users. Basic users now have access to the “Control Panel > Mobile Settings” screen in the Control Panel and have the ability to configure their mobile devices and email clients to post to TypePad.

    Those first two items are desperately needed in MovableType and the lack of these options is part of what’s fueling my consideration of alternatives to MT. If I weren’t hosting so many sites for myself and family members I’d just breakdown and sign up for TypePad at this point as it’s closer to what I want in a blogging package at this point. Which may be what the folks at Six Apart are hoping will happen. Oh well.

  6. If MT3 turns out like you just described - a lot of people will switch. This version should be called 2.7.

    SixApart is making a great mistake, by ignoring the big MT community and beefing up only TypePad with cool goodies. Many people will feel abandoned.

    Thanks for your review!

    cheers orangeguru

  7. That is a possibility, though I don’t think the migration away from MT would be all that huge to initially. Certainly some people who are unhappy will switch, some already have, but there are plenty of people for whom MT already does everything they need (or close to it) so they’re likely to take a wait-and-see approach.

    Keep in mind that MT is a free product unless you’re running a commercial website and I’d be willing to bet that the majority of its personal users haven’t donated to the cause so loss of userbase doesn’t necessarily translate into a loss of revenue for the folks at SA unless the folks making the move are using it for commercial websites. It’s also not surprising to see them concentrating on TypePad a bit more than MT as that’s a money generating product. After all at the end of the day you’ve gotta pay the bills.

    Presumably there’s some value for SA to keep MT and its userbase happy or they would’ve stopped development of MT a long time ago to concentrate on TypePad. So there’s a bit of a risk on their part in hoping that the new plugin API will end up justifying their decision to release a new version of MT with such a big jump in the version number that doesn’t come with a bunch of new bells and whistles. The new API is powerful, but not all-powerful as at least one plugin author has requested that SA add in an additional callback point that would be useful for his plugin otherwise we’d be back to hacking the code directly again to make us of it. If SA ends up supporting the plugin community as strongly as they’ve indicated they plan to (and this aforementioned request is one of the early tests of that support) then this really could be the best thing to happen to MT and make it worthy of the 3.0 designation.

    What happens in the next few months will ultimately decide whether the risk SA is taking will have been worth it.

  8. I’ve spent time reading the alpha and beta forums, and even an aborted attempt or two to update my own 2.661 blog …

    Right now, I’m not too impressed with the feature set. It doesn’t appear to provide too much new. One thing you missed was the default archiving paths are now usefull, but thats really about the extent of it …

    I think I’ll hold off until I see some useful plugins, or it at least comes out of Beta ..

    Of course, I could also change my mind and try it

    Thanks for the excellent post!

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