Six Apart: Love at First Blog

By Joshua Weinberger  |  Posted 2003-12-01
In 2001, Mena Trott couldn't find any software she liked to use for her online journal. She complained to her husband, Ben, that the available tools didn't offer enough control over comments or archiving, for instance.

So Ben, a software developer, built a program that gave Mena everything she was looking for. The result is now one of the most popular Weblogging tools around.

The high-school sweethearts started offering Movable Type as a download off the Web in October 2001. MT quickly built a sizable following, with 750,000 downloads of the product to date. In 2002 the couple went into business for themselves. They called their company Six Apart, the number of days separating their birthdays.

The software was free for individuals, making it popular. But early users also liked that Movable Type resided on their machines, rather than on a vendor's server. They could access the underlying code and tweak the program at will.

The result: Fans of the software have crafted hundreds of popular Movable Type add-on features. One example is "MT Blacklist," which blocks out comments from unapproved visitors.

"We want to give the average user [the ability to do] things they didn't think they could do," says Mena Trott. "Because I'm a Weblogger myself, that's what drove our plans."

Now, companies and organizations—from publishers Advance Communications and Primedia to many of the presidential-campaign Web sites, including Dean for America and Bush/Cheney '04—also have embraced the product, plunking down $150 for a commercial license.

Choire Sicha, who runs the pop-culture blog Gawker, says MT can even be too complex for individual bloggers. "For most blogs, using MT is sort of like using a nuclear bomb to clean your closet," he says. For Movable Type blogs to look and act in any kind of sophisticated way—incorporating multiple images and unique layouts, for example—users need to craft complex programming scripts and be familiar with a Web-layout format known as Cascading Style Sheets. "MT requires more customization than most people have the time or skills for," Sicha says.

But MT also may not be ready for really high-volume use. At the Web site for Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, for example, the original blog was built in September on Movable Type. But just two months later, Cameron Barrett, the campaign's head blogger, says he's phasing out MT. "Our community-management and blog-management needs too quickly outgrew [Movable Type's] functionality," he says. "It did not scale to our needs. We're approaching 1,500-2,000 comments per day."

Movable Type simply lists comments as they're posted. It wasn't designed to handle multiple discussion threads among readers—a feature many bloggers now want. In practice, Barrett says, posted comments on MT became "more like an endless AOL chat room transcript than a categorized and civil discussion."

Ben Trott says that Six Apart has plans to "improve the community experience on larger-scale sites."

For bloggers who don't want to manage the software on their own computers, the company in October rolled out a hosted service based on Movable Type called TypePad, for which it charges between $5 and $15 a month, depending on services selected. TypePad Basic offers users a raft of features, including easy-to-use templates for setting up blogs, and the ability to create and maintain photo albums or lists of links. Higher levels of service allow bloggers the ability to post from wireless devices and to schedule posts days in advance.

Mena Trott says the company expects to have 10,000 TypePad users by the end of the year. The company also has been working on a more robust version of MT for professional bloggers, Movable Type Pro. The product is designed to offer most of the new TypePad features, but with a better work sequence and more features for managing authors of posts.

Unfortunately, the development of TypePad delayed the scheduled release of Movable Type Pro, delivery of which—originally announced in February 2003—has been pushed back to early 2004.

Six Apart has taken steps to avoid such choices in the future. Additional financing has been raised and new investors include Web visionary Joi Ito and some of the founders behind electronic-payment powerhouse PayPal, social-networking community LinkedIn and wireless Internet-access pioneer OmniSky.

"We feel like a real company now," Mena Trott says.

The Company

Headquarters: 66 Bovet Road, Suite 360, San Mateo, CA 94402
Phone: (650) 571-1709
Ticker: Private; one round of venture-capital funding.
Employees: 5
Business: Makers of "personal-publishing" software, the kind used to create Weblogs and maintain online content.
Founded: 2002
Founders: Husband-and-wife team Ben and Mena Trott are, respectively, chief technology officer and chief executive officer.
Financials: Not available
Products: Movable Type is the original software; a Movable Type Pro release is in the offing. TypePad, a hosted service intended for beginners, was launched in October 2003.
Market Share: Defining the market is tough—some bloggers install software on their own machines; others host with a vendor. But MT is often cited as the most popular of the former.
Competitors: UserLand's Radio and Manila; Pyra Labs' Blogger and Blog*Spot (purchased by Google in February 2003).

Reference Checks
Jeff Jarvis
President, Creative Director
Project: Advance Publications' online division relies on Movable Type to customize content for its local newspapers, and the software is key to its disaster-recovery plan.

Choire Sicha
Project: Part of Gawker Media—which includes porn-themed Fleshbot and gadget-centric Gizmodo—Gawker is nearing its one-year anniversary delivering daily doses of snarky pop culture.

The Kicker
Elizabeth Spiers
Project: After nine months running Gawker, Spiers was plucked to guide New York magazine's blog, which launched in September to cover the media scene.

Gilberto Cutrupi
Project: The global environmental organization began its blog in May 2002, and has since spawned "sub-blogs" on such topics as Iraq and the World Trade Organization.

Clark for President
Cameron Barrett
Manager, Online Community
Project: Online forum for Wesley Clark, the latecomer to the campaign, first ran on MT, but is switching to different software to handle the burgeoning load of comments.

Dean For America
Mathew Gross
Director, Internet Communications
Project: The presidential campaign for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean started using Blogger, but later switched to Movable Type.

The Technology
One of blogging's most useful features is the ability to let readers react to posted items. If a campaign blog, for example, summarizes coverage of the previous night's debate, anyone can log on and post comments to the piece.
But that's inherently limiting, keeping all the related material in one place, on one server. In the "blogosphere"—the universe of bloggers—the real power is in the spread of information, not the hoarding of it. Six Apart's attempt to address this is a feature called TrackBack, which collects links to comments made by readers on other sites.
The comments remain offsite, but can be reached by clicking on links on the blog where the original message appears.
A blogger from outside starts the process by embedding a tag on his or her site linking back to the campaign's post. Six Apart has made the TrackBack code freely available, so it can be adopted by other blogging software.
This will increase the ability of different sites to encourage interaction and linking between posters. And it even will play a role in limiting the bane of blogs: comment spamming.
By identifying where a comment has come from, the posts can be segregated. Readers are not forced to wade through all posts from all comers, including posts that are actually advertisements. The mechanism also allows the use of "blacklist" software for blocking comments from unwanted posters.