Saturday, May 26, 2007

TypePad as CMS: Maybe the next time.

As I mentioned earlier, I thought I could use TypePad Pro from Six Apart as a general-purpose content-management system (CMS) for a magazine-like web site. Short answer: no dice. There were a couple problems around the difference between blogging and content management; a couple issues of usability; and one show-stopping oversight I can't understand. Blogging is not CMS. I knew that, but I thought it was close enough. After all, the difference between an "online magazine" and a "multi-author blog" is very, very thin. And I don't doubt you could just change you notion of a magazine and be fine... or perhaps you shouldn't even be thinking of a magazine, you should be thinking of a blog. But I care a lot about how this thing will look, and I also care about easily playing around with monetizing options like Amazon Affiliates and Google Adsense. I don't expect to make money, but I do want to play with technologies that at least in theory could make me money. All of this, unfortunately, is really hard with TypePad. The default templates are gorgeous, but customization is a nightmare -- I'd really expected them to have radically improved that end of their business since my experience with Movable Type a couple years ago. But it's still about pulling teeth. There is of course a plug-in architecture, as befits a popular web service. But that too is difficult to install and administer. I know Six Apart knows their current ad offering is a joke; they're looking for a good programmer to make them a new one. And yes, they do have some minimal Amazon integration. What I missed, surprisingly, was tight integration with Google services and with other content (Flickr/Yahoo) and commercial (Adsense/Amazon) offerings. I do realize these are in some way Six Apart's competitors, but we've reached the point where not working with Google is like not working with e-mail. Incestuous Usability. Wow, what a phrase. It's not what you think! Seriously, TypePad has some very cool features, but it's overwhelmingly obvious that their UI team is stuck in a rut. It's natural enough: things are added, the large customer base gets used to them and gives feedback, things are refactored, and so on -- with the end result that you can do a whole lot, but unless you're a veteran user of the system it's shockingly non-obvious how to get your work done. That's what's incestuous about it: I'm sure it's the best thing ever for the people who've been there for years, but its objective quality is not very high. What it really needs is a complete UI overhaul, ideally with some usability experts from a good Mac house like Omni Group or Panic. Or even get Zeldman's team, they're smart enough to get you 95% there. I also had some general nits but they're more likely about personal preference than anything else. I'd mostly like a more application-like posting experience; Blogger is actually better in that, despite the asinine link layout. The show-stopper: stupid mod_redirect tricks. Still and all, I was really tempted to give it a go for a couple months and see if the zero-administration angle could make up for the lack of easy customization. But I found one thing I just couldn't accept: their domain hosting is broken. Quoth Six Apart:
The mapping sets up your http://www.example.com address. To enable the http://example.com address (without the www) to work with your site, you would use a redirect from http://example.com to http://www.example.com. How this is set exactly depends on your registrar. Some registrars will allow you to use the forwarding option to redirect your non-www address.
For non-technical readers: that means you have to fiddle with the technical hosting bullshit anyway, even if you just want to use your domain name for your blog, because you need people to be able to type "someblog.com" into the browser and get to you. I've thought about this quite a bit, and I can't figure out what Six Apart's mental block is. I can only guess it's a tricky scalability problem, since I know they have some really smart people working there, so they've probably already tried the five or six solutions I thought up in an afternoon. But at the end of the day, I'm sorry, there's no excuse. For that matter, I think Six Apart should lower the burden on their nontechnical users and just provide DNS and a decent webmail system (or use Gmail, see above). Imagine this: to make your domain your blog, just set the name servers to NS1.TYPEPAD.COM and so on; then connect the domain to your blog in your TypePad control panel, and optionally add some e-mail addresses which you can then access via webmail.typepad.com. Most hosting providers offer something similar if less well engineered. Hot San Francisco startup can't do better? Nope. Wrong answer. Why does this bug me so much? For me personally, it crosses a line: if I have to worry about any administrative thing outside of TypePad, I might as well host it myself. But I'm a big techie; the other thing that bugs me is the thought of all the people who are TypePad's more natural customers, who don't know much about computers or the Internet, and will waste hours of their time trying to set things up right, and most likely end up with a half-broken solution anyway. Are you listening, Barak? You guys should be the industry leaders on this point! OK, so I got all worked up about the technical part, now I might as well also note that the help text is technically incorrect; it may or may not have to do with your registrar. Nyah. Plan and Recommendation. I'd like to try WordPress next, but only if I find a very good hosted solution. I know half the point is that you don't need hosting, but I still like the idea of minimizing my administrative overhead. The other thing is that WordPress, for all its glory and following, requires two technologies I consider scourges of the Internet: PHP and MySQL. I'm a Perl guy, so I know what it is to take abuse; but I'll go out on a limb and say that anyone who likes MySQL doesn't understand the intrinsic beauty of databases; and don't even get me started on PHP. These technologies are no longer welcome anywhere I have sudo. So I may just roll my own, or I may fall back to that venerable technology known as "HTML." It would probably be more fun to write a TextMate publishing bundle than a blogging system anyway. However, for all my complaints I would still recommend TypePad to a broad class of users. If you need a blog, and you're not necessarily trying to do some super crazy geeky tricks, and you only kinda-sorta need it on your own domain name (or don't at all), I think the low administrative overhead and pretty good reliability and very friendly, helpful community of TypePad add up to a deal that's easily worth the small fees they charge. Some really influential people use it, including Seth Godin, though you'll notice he's not bothering with the domain mapping. I think the folks at Six Apart genuinely have their customer's best interests in mind, even if they occasionally fail to deliver. If "roll my own" isn't something you could or would consider anyway, and you don't want a big setup hassle, you should give TypePad a 30-day trial and you may find it suits your needs. My needs, it turns out, were more complicated.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous sayenjole said...

Yeah!I'm so excited about Typepad connet. Very innovative idea. Great job!

2:58 AM  
Anonymous sayenjole said...

Thanks so much for sharing these tips. I’m doing on a class on this next month, the plugins you mentioned sound like they’ll be very helpful.

3:58 AM  

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