movable gripe

| 14 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

Far too many hours of my day yesterday were eaten up by trying to turn Movable Type into not only a general purpose content management tool (using category restrictions), but also a pseudo-discussion board (using MTThreadedComments). (My own fault, I know. I'm not griping about the software so much as I am my own foolishness at attempting to make MT do so much in one place!) None of this was for my site--it was to help a friend.

If you've been wondering why so few people use ThreadedComments (I think the only person I read regularly that does is Phil Ringnalda)...stop wondering. The functionality is very cool, but it's a b*tch to install, especially if you're trying to implement it in a non-standard (i.e. you've modified the index and archive templates) environment.

I was trying to think about how to blog this technology-wrestling experience I just had, when I stumbled across AKMA's post this morning regarding the Trotts' visit to Seabury, and his request to them for a "trackback for dummies" page (as well as other "dummified" docs for MT). He's right, of course. Those of us who grok the power of trackback try so hard to evangelize it. But for some reason, the concept is really hard to convey to the rest of the world. So the geeks merrily trackback each other's posts, and build TopicExchange ping aggregators, and wonder all the while why nobody else seems to be jumping on the bandwagon.

This is always the problem, isn't it? The best toys start out as the hardest to use, and that ends up stratifying users. For me as a technologist, MT is like a giant tinkertoy set. Or maybe Lego is a better metaphor. Blogging as Lego construction. You can go for the Duplo blocks version, the basic blocks set, or splurge on the gears and motors and even the robotics. Movable Type is clearly the geek tool of choice--bells and whistles galore in the basic package, and a plethora of plugins to take it even further. Someone trying to...oh, avoid hearing about the fast-approaching war...could spend hours and hours tweaking templates, adding functionality, playing with features.

But I know that those of us who take pleasure in that kind of tinkering are the exception, not the rule. I sat down yesterday with two friends--both sophisticated users of technology, but new to the world of blogging software. After a couple of hours with them, it was obvious to me how difficult it still is to explain how a tool like MT works, and get them up to speed on it.

Is the problem with the tool? I don't think so. But there are definitely still things that need to be improved before MT can go "mainstream." The installation, for example. It's very well documented--but it's daunting nonetheless. The customizing of interfaces for entry. The customizing of templates for display.

So, to follow up on my "blessed are the toolmakers..." entry from a few days ago, here are the kinds of things I'd love to see in Movable Type (and, by extension, other sophisticated social software tools). I'm not asking Ben & Mena to do this--lord knows, I'm grateful enough for the software they've provided, and I'm certainly not trying to be churlish. But when people ask "what's left to do?", or e-mail me asking for ideas for their graduate projects, these are the kinds of things that come to mind.

  • An installer package--all I should need to know to install it in basic mode is the existing directory structure of the server it's going to. The installer should modify the files based on user inputs to prompts, create the necessary directories on the server, upload files, change permissions, set the user id and password, and configure the initial blog.
  • A plug-in installation engine. Make adding new functionality as close to drag-and-drop as possible. Don't make me use FTP--give me a web-based interface that lets me select a plug-in and install it.
  • Easier ways to change the look and feel. For most users, the style sheet is intimidating. A web-based interface that let you specify aspects of the style sheet and then rewrote the .css for you would help a lot.
  • A wysiwyg template building engine. How about an application (doesn't have to be web-based, but that would be nice) that lets you drag and drop template tags from a list into a page, and see what the result would look like?

I know there's more, but I'm tired and grumpy and sore (pulled an abdominal oblique muscle yesterday in the gym), so I'm going to take a hot bath and then drag myself into the office.

2 TrackBacks

AKMA has requested a Trackback for Dummies explanation. Liz seconds this in a post neatly titled MoveableGripe and points out that while geeks get MoveableType instantly, without clear explanations for regular people way cool features just aren't going... Read More

liz's MT wishlist from anil dash's daily links on March 22, 2003 2:48 AM

http://www.it.rit.edu/~ell/mamamusings/archives/000389.html... Read More

14 Comments

UNINSTALL!!!!
I hosed my Apache/Perl/mt/gallery instalation this weekend. not too suprising as i am more ambitious than i should be when it comes to compiling/installing programs on my iMac. the thing is that i do not know what i'm doing. so i read tutorials on the web and try to glean a clue from them. often the info is stale so things go inevatibly wrong. when it does i want to be able to clean the slate and try again. unfortunatly i'm no code monkey. not even close. i have no idea how to uninstall things under Unix. is there a standard way? i looked, but couldn't find out where all the stuff i was compiling and installing (./configure...make....make install..lather..rinse..repeate) bleh. how do i get out of this place.
completely dejected i reinstalled mac os x before i went to sleep. starting fresh when i go home tonight.
so one thing i would really like is an uninstall.
also in the big hell that i was in i was using CPAN. and i must say that i really dug the way it checks for dependancies. at least it did some type of preflighting. as opposed to the normal unix drone mentality of i'm going to do absolutly exactly what you told me no matter what. i do understand and apreciate this mentality, i wish configure/installing things were a lot more intelegent/aware of their environment or at least asked the stupid questions that i might just understand. though.
excuse the rantish nature of this post, but at this point i'm one squeaky wheel.
-hary

There's virtually no setup required on a Mac OS X machine. You've already got Apache and Perl, and MT's Perl dependencies should be fine if you download the package that includes the libraries. You'll have to play with directory permissions a little bit, but even that can be done in the Finder.

In regards to MovableType as a general-purpose content management system: I don't think it's there yet. I have not used Frontier extensively, but it seemed easy to tie pages together with links and include many documents on the same page. When I redesigned the MacRIT site using MT, I had to create individual template pages that only included certain categories, and then sort items using a number held in the "Extended" field.

Things I would have found useful in that particular case:

1. Versioning. Let me update the schedule, but keep the old one around for posterity.

2. A way of organizing entries that is more complex than the "dump everything from this category and get on with your life" approach. (Yes, you can order and limit by date/number/etc, but it's not as easy as clicking a widget to make Entry B appear before Entry A.)

A little disapointed with this post, if this post was in any way meant to address the "What's left to do?" question that I asked a few days ago. You list the obvious finishing up stuff that I already knew about. I thought, when you wrote about social software, that maybe there was something big, bold, and exciting out there that I didn't know about.

A little disapointed with this post, if this post was in any way meant to address the "What's left to do?" question that I asked a few days ago. You list the obvious finishing up stuff that I already knew about. I thought, when you wrote about social software, that maybe there was something big, bold, and exciting out there that I didn't know about.

Hi Liz,
your link to Salam appears, sadly, to be brokem.
Or maybe someone-who-will-not-be-named has assured that we cannot follow the link (at least from here in Germany). If it is your problem, could you fix it please?

Stu

Harry, one of the nice things about unix installs in OS X is there's not much to uninstall. You just delete the directory with the program in it, and _poof_. But you're right that if you provide an "installer" program for non-unix folks to upload and configure MT, there should be an easy "uninstall" program that goes out and deletes MT and all associated directories & files.

Lawrence, sorry to disappoint you! But (a) this was not meant as a comprehensive response to your question, and (b) often it's the small barriers being removed that have the largest impact on use. I do plan on writing more about the things that I think still need to happen. But in fact, many of the best new technologies are impossible to predict--they come from experimentation and tinkering, not a "to do" list.

Stu, I can't find anything wrong with the link (which is not on this post, btw, for anyone who's confused--it's on the previous post, "more words worth reading on war"). The URL is http://dear-raed.blogspot.com/ if you want to try entering it directly.

I've been working with www.monkeyclaus.com to develop a CMS. I'm a minor player in the game, they have a programmer named Costin who lives in Romania and cranks out some serious code. He's come out with a top-level user system, comparable to PostNuke's. At some point we'll add weblog abilities (already have in a small way) and become competition for Movable Type. Right now we are way, way behind them, but not hopelessly so.

I take your list seriously. The plug-in installation engine seems easy enough - I've just put it at the top of my agenda. It seems like it would only take me a day to add that.

The installer would take a long weekend.

Everything else you mention is much tougher. Whole projects in themselves really. Such things will probably be handled by outside programmers. The path forward, for monkeyclaus and Movable Type both, I presume, is to give outsiders the ability to add those functions. Because if you leave it to a small team of core programmers, it will be 10 years before they add "A web-based interface that let you specify aspects of the style sheet and then rewrote the .css for you". You're asking for something with more power that TopStyle, and TopStyle is its own piece of software.

As long as I'm posting, I might as well add, one thing monkeyclaus needs is a graphic designer. We suspect people would take our software more seriously if it looked nicer. It is an open source project. If anyone is interested, drop me a line.

Try PostNuke (http://postnuke.com, requires PHP and mySQL).

It has an online installer that asks you to fill out a series of short forms, and then voila! Your weblog is installed + you can start posting immediately. Comes with optional plug-ins, and a variety of themes as well.

And, unlike Moveable Type, all the code is fully open + free (you don't have to click through or agree to any ugly EULAs).

I've fooled are with a lot of out of the box CMSes and this one is by the far the easiest to get up and running (second place: Bloxsom).

Took me about 5 minutes max, and I didn't have to open + edit any config files or tweak any tables in mySQL (although, admittedly, you do have to chmod 666 1 file and 1 directory from the command line, but that's it!).

response to Lawrence Krubner:

You could have a web based form that would allow you to select fonts, font sizes, colors, borders, whatever, and then on submission generate a style sheet. Using Perl or PHP, that wouldn't be difficult at all.

The hard part would be making the form have a non-annoying interface. Form widgets on the web are at best problematic + clumsy for users. The best interfaces I've seen for the kind of thing you're talking about is the themes selection + modification Yahoo allows for its my.yahoo product.

Spell Check would be a wonderful tool! (Sorry if this is rather off topic?)They should look into that before anything else. I'm not gifted at spelling so it would speed entry time and personal humiliation if the tool was added to the Moveable Type program. I added my comment to the Moveable Type "Request a Feature" section of their web site. (Link)

EvanS

Evan-

Ben & Mena announced a Pro version of MT not too long ago that will include--among other things--a spell-checker. :-)

Chash: Yes, that is what I meant. Form widgets on the web are, as you say, trouble. But now it occurs to me that the thing could be done as Java, rather than HTML. Is there any reason a the control panel of a weblog needs to be HTML? I'm wondering if I've forgotten something obvious.

Chas: I tried PostNuke during its transition to version .7 and it was really awful. I do realize that much of the beta-awfulness has been fixed, or at least that is what I'm told, but it was really awful back then. It was nearly impossible to customize, because only about 3 people in the world understood how the new interface worked. Me and my friends started monkeyclausCMS out our frustration with PostNuke.

If we are going to talk about social software, we need to talk about privacy, because very little human interaction is possible without secrets, and the ability to keep secrets is closely tied into the human emotion of trust.

Thus fine-grained but easy security is important, and that means an advanced user system is important.

This is one area where PostNuke does have the advantage.

What will win in the end? I don't know. Either the content management systems will add blog abilities (like TrackBack) or the weblogs will grow to be content management systems (adding in user systems). It's anyone's guess who will win that race. PostNuke has several hundred people working on it, if you count themes and modules. I don't know how many people work on MT (counting 3rd parties). Blogger is a closed system, yes? What else are people using?

PostNuke seems to hold all the cards, but seems to lack the loyalty of any weblogger that I know of. Why is that?

For multi-user CMSs, I've been fairly impressed by Drupal (drupal.org). I'm not sure if MT should really try to become more of an open multi-user tool--after a certain point, you get into bloatware.

Many of your suggestions are similar to ones I've made at the MT support forum. With modules, MT already has the architecture to support a building-block approach to template creation--all we would need to do is write some high-quality modules and get the Trotts to release them as part of the default install. Users could then write templates as a series of MTIncludes (this could create some dependency problems if module authors aren't careful). Or someone could write a dead-simple tool in JS or PHP to do it for you.

Someone is already working on a plugin manager, and expressed interest in generalizing that to be an MT install manager. Perhaps if MT goes with a more module-oriented approach this could also function as a module-manager.

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This page contains a single entry published on March 18, 2003 10:31 AM.

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