A List Apart


A Standards-Compliant Publishing Tool for the Rest of Us?

The development community, the independent content community, and especially webloggers, are familiar with Six Apart’s Movable Type, a robust and popular publishing tool designed to faciliate the creation of blogs. Lately the community has been buzzing about a soon-to-be-released Six Apart product intended to deliver the power of personal publishing to an even wider, non-expert user base.

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What has not been told until now is that TypePad has been designed to generate standards-compliant sites, and that the application itself is built with web standards. A List Apart’s publisher and creative director Jeffrey Zeldman caught up with Six Apart’s Anil Dash to find out more.

We’re thrilled that you’ve chosen A List Apart as the place to announce the standards compliance part of your story. But before we get into that, please tell us about TypePad. What does it do, and who is it for?

TypePad is a personal publishing service that combines easy tools for creating weblogs, photo blogs, photo albums, and all the other pieces of a full-featured personal website with hosting and maintenance and updates of the software. Because the whole system is designed to work by just signing up and diving in, we’re anticipating it being extremely popular with beginners, but it will range in features all the way up to its highest tier, which includes nearly all of Movable Type’s functionality, except for the ability to customize the application’s code.

Aside from improved standards compliance, which we’ll get into a bit later, how does TypePad differ from other web publishing tools and weblog services, including your company’s popular Movable Type product? Standards aside, how does it differ from the non-Six Apart products out there?

The key thing that differentiates TypePad is that it’s designed to not require any setup or configuration, or any focus on anything except the ideas you’re sharing. In the case of Movable Type, TypePad is differentiated by not needing to be installed on your server. In the case of other weblog tools, TypePad is differentiated by not needing the user to manually integrate Javascript or HTML for basic features like comments, categories, TrackBack, blogrolls or statistics.

TypePad’s press materials state that the product is specifically designed for webloggers and similar personal site creators. We’ll bite: in what special ways does TypePad meet those content producers’ needs?

The advantage we had in creating TypePad was getting to start, around the middle of last year, at a time when the formats themselves were relatively defined, and we could work backwards from the way weblogs exist in order to make the tool work to suit the appropriate tasks. We’ve seen lots of people who are signed up for three, four, or five different services, each with their own password, just to manage their weblog, blogroll, comments, and statistics. And then on top of that, they’re forced to manually integrate those pieces with little pieces of Javascript inserted into inscrutable places in the markup for their templates. For web developers, this is all trivial. For my mom, it’s just not even in the realm of possibility. So TypePad gives those basic users the tools to manage all those pieces right in the interface, while allowing advanced users to still get in and customize it as they’d expect to.

Does this focus on the needs of bloggers mean that the tool would not help other kinds of content creators and site owners and developers? For instance, would TypePad be a poor choice for a school, church, or other small organization that is looking for an affordable content management system that supports web standards? (If it is a poor choice, what might they use instead?)

TypePad would probably only be used by very small organizations which were primarily focused on updating the news on their site. It’s likely to fit the “church newsletter” market pretty well, but it’s not designed to build a full brochureware site, even though there are some fairly nice tools for managing the static parts of your site. We think it’s more likely that small businesses get help with their sites from consultants, either paid or voluntary friend-of-a-friend experts working on building their sites. And to those developers, Movable Type is already the most popular choice. It does generate standards-compliant markup by default, and we plan to improve the semantics of the default templates even more in our upcoming releases.

Okay. Tell us about standards compliance in TypePad. From glancing at the limited materials Six Apart has so far made available, my sense is that with this product even a novice could publish a weblog built with valid XHTML and CSS. Is that correct? If so, how does it work?

TypePad does allow users at any level to choose from a library of fully compliant XHTML/CSS templates. Even better, they can use the built-in visual template builder to choose which pieces of information to display on a page, drag and drop them within the app to rearrange them on the page, and then just hit save and the application will generate the appropriate markup for them automatically. At the advanced level, we have the full templating system that current Movable Type users are familiar with, and all the power and potential that our users keep surprising us with is there. But the part that keeps enticing us is that users don’t have to choose from pre-built templates, they can make their own, either starting from scratch or by basing it on one of the ones that come with the app, and still have a fully validating page when they’re done with the process.

Does Six Apart provide users with standards-compliant templates? If so, who designed those?

Every template in TypePad will be standards-compliant markup by default. We haven’t finalized the number of pre-built templates yet, but because the template builder lets people create their own, the total number is essentially limitless. All of the built-in ones are designed by Mena Trott, who designed the default Movable Type templates that people seem very happy with, along with sites like her own Dollarshort.org and Gizmodo, a Movable Type-powered weblog about gadgets. Interestingly, she also designed the Currency template, which seems to have been adopted as an option by nearly every weblog publishing tool that exists, so it appears that even the users of our competitors’ products like her design sense.

Why is it important to Six Apart to create a tool that generates valid markup, styles, and code? What is the benefit to users of TypePad and to people who visit TypePad-generated sites?

At a fundamental level, the web standards story is about access. Giving browser developers access to the market. Giving readers with disabilities access to information. Giving users of any platform access to the sites that matter to them. So there’s a strong sense that we’re making pages generated in TypePad represent what weblogging is about in general, a level playing field for information, a sort of democratization of publishing. From a personal standpoint, I think we’re all just a little bit neurotic and compulsive enough that the “correctness” of valid markup appeals to us, too, though I suspect we’re supposed to present that as us being a detail-oriented organization.

In a larger sense, we have two big goals for TypePad’s output. We want to enable even the least technologically-savvy user to participate in the benefits of advanced technology. Someday soon (Yea, verily, I believe!) there will be benefits to generating semantically-valid markup that validates as XHTML. And those are benefits that shouldn’t be conferred only on the technically elite. Indeed, they’ll be less interesting benefits if those are the only users who see them. But we’re also interested in quality. We say often that we don’t just want a lot of weblogs to use Typepad, we want them to be quality weblogs. And page quality is a reflection of the site itself, we believe. There’s a sense of craftsmanship to a well-made web page just as there is to the solidity of a chair made by an expert carpenter. So maybe that’s some invisible aesthetic decision, but we think that it’s important and that it influences the quality of writing, design, and expression on the site itself.

Basically, we want our pages to be valid so that they’re accessible to the largest possible audience. And we want that broadness of accessibility to be a motivator for people to do justice to the breadth of their audience in terms of the quality of the ideas they express using our tools.

If the user creates his or her own template, and that template is not standards-compliant, what happens? Does TypePad magically fix such problems?

We fully support the right of our advanced users to be as depraved as they need to be. The basic and intermediate level template builders actually don’t allow invalid markup to be created. Advanced users are given the Peter Parker admonition: With great power comes great responsibility. As much as we advocate web standards, we’re not zealots about it, and we know that people have different needs. Besides, we’ve seen the reaction that advanced users of word processors have to auto-correction, and we’re not really eager to get into the dancing paperclip level of authoritarianism over our users.

You’ve told me that TypePad is standards-compliant inside and out. In other words, not only does it generate standards-compliant sites, you claim that the tool itself is built with web standards. Please explain.

First, I’ll explain what inside and out means to us for TypePad. TypePad is designed to be a large scale, commercially available web application and publishing service, and every page in the application (minus any beta bugs we’re still working through right now) is valid XHTML. Movable Type was one of the earliest tools to generate XHTML by default for output, but the application itself reflects markup that, while good for its mid-2001 vintage, isn’t ideal. TypePad is, as far as we know, the first major web tool where we walk the walk for the program. We chose an XHTML 1.0 Transitional DOCTYPE, due to our requirements for scripting in the application. Our input and output formats are valid XML, and our positioning, layout, and styling are all described through valid CSS.

Second, TypePad is designed to encourage the creation of standards-compliant web pages by making it automatic wherever possible and easy everywhere else. Output pages are also valid XHTML and CSS.

Why was it important to Six Apart to build this product with web standards? What are you trying to prove?

Interestingly, TypePad’s status as standards-compliant wasn’t an articulated decision within the company. It’s just the way we all build pages by default, because it’s that much faster and that much easier to make work across platforms. So we never had a “should we do this in valid markup?” discussion; that’s just the only sensible development path, as far as we’re concerned. There was no advocacy component to it, it’s just the reality of having a development team that lives on multiple platforms and browsers. For example, primary development of TypePad was done for months on Mac OS X, and when Safari came out, except for known bugs in that browser, TypePad just worked. When I joined the company a few months ago, I finally got to really play with the application on Internet Explorer for Windows and Mozilla Firebird, my preferred browsers, and it just worked. I think we may have spent a few minutes dealing with IE’s box model weirdness, but cross-browser functionality testing was on the order of minutes, not even hours.

That’s not to say that our support for web standards is accidental or incidental, of course. I was a member of The Web Standards Project before I joined Six Apart, and the company has been nothing but supportive of my presence there, and strongly encourages my participation. For a while, we were a three person company, so they were essentially comfortable saying that one third of their human resources could focus on web standards as a priority. I don’t know of many other companies with that level of commitment to open standards.

Will the underlying standards-compliant code in TypePad, its standards-compliant output, and its special weblog-oriented features find their way into Movable Type at some point in the future?

We absolutely plan to bring every TypePad feature into Movable Type that we can. There are some limitations due to the fact that Movable Type is distributed and runs on a huge variety of different platforms. But the large-scale improvements that we got from developing TypePad will definitely surface in Movable Type and our upcoming Movable Type Pro release.

When these standards and these new, blogger-oriented features make their way into Movable Type, how should potential users decide which product, TypePad or Movable Type, is best for their needs? In other words, who will want one and who might prefer the other?

There’s a very simple way to decide whether TypePad or Movable Type are right for you. Movable Type is designed for businesses and power users who are comfortable managing their own servers and installing applications on them, or who have a need for customizing the code of the application itself. TypePad is designed for everyone else: basic to advanced users who want to focus on publishing their words, photos, and ideas without managing or installing any software.

Why should web producers interest themselves in products from a small company like Six Apart? Shouldn’t they wait for a more respectable product from a bigger company like Macromedia or even Microsoft?

Well, it depends on what they’re trying to achieve. We certainly work very well with tools from those companies, so perhaps the question isn’t deciding between them, but in choosing how they’ll work together. We’ve been very fortunate to have a good number of people inside Macromedia using our publishing tools, which we think complement their applications very well. And even Microsoft has created a blogging plug-in for their Windows Media Player, which can work with third-party applications that support our APIs to publish things like a “Now Playing” list to your weblog. So we see that as a validation from these big players that, just as we support their platforms, they support ours.

At a fundamental level, we think that part of what makes TypePad compelling to a lot of writers is the idea that you can have your own site and have control of publishing in a way that’s not controlled by a large corporation, or one of the giant media conglomerates. That’s not to say that those aren’t also valid and important media outlets, but we’ve seen that people like having a choice of both. Plus, I think everyone tends to prefer small companies when it comes to responsiveness and in valuing their customers.

Does Microsoft’s recent announcement that they will no longer upgrade Internet Explorer outside of an upcoming OS version that also includes Digital Rights Management, coupled with the announcement by AOL that it is likely to use IE6 instead of its own Netscape browser for the next seven years, in any way make you question Six Apart’s commitment to web standards?

Not at all. As mentioned earlier, our commitment to web standards comes from purely pragmatic reasons when developing our tools. No matter what future directions any of the browser or platform vendors go in, there are still hundreds of millions of machines and devices that we want to ensure are able to access the TypePad application and, more importantly, the sites that our users create with it. In fact we think the continuing evolution of these huge companies’ policies towards their browser and rendering efforts act as even more of a confirmation of the importance of web standards: platforms, tools, and technologies might change, but the only thing that ensures your words are still visible to the web are these standards.

What else should we know about TypePad, Movable Type, or Six Apart?

TypePad coming soon! Honest! We’ve just been thrilled that so many people are interested in trying it out, and we’d encourage anyone who wants to check out typepad.com to sign up for the mailing list, as that’s where we’ll be picking beta testers from. Movable Type is going to see a huge number of benefits from our work on TypePad, both in support for their common APIs and in improvements that’ll be reflected back from TypePad to Movable Type and Movable Type Pro. And regarding Six Apart, I’d say that the biggest thing people should know is that we appreciate how very much our users have contributed to our work, and that there’s still so much to do yet, for all of us. So do go and tell people about weblogs, about TypePad.

We all tend to think everyone knows about these things, but they’re just in their infancy, and we haven’t yet seen the potential of a truly huge global network of linked personal publishing efforts. Of course, we’re hoping that our tools are the best and that will make people choose them, but the most important thing is that people understand the potential of the medium, and that it doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated. In short, spread the word!

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