Mena and Ben Trott thrilled the world of bloggers with their Movable Type software. Then their company, Six Apart, received venture financing and they decided it was time to get serious.
In the spring of 2001, Mena Trott, a Web designer in San Francisco, began a quirky Web log called Dollarshort. This was a time when hundreds of young Web designers in San Francisco were starting their own quirky blogs, and so the historical significance of Trott’s effort might at first seem difficult to appreciate.
“I didn’t win many awards as a kid,” Trott began in her first post, on April 3, 2001. “When I was seven, though, I awarded myself a homemade prize ribbon fashioned out of a raveling brown fabric remnant. And with my little white crayon, what did I scrawl on this ribbon? ‘Winner.’ That’s it. Not ‘1st Place’ or ‘Good Job!’ Just ‘Winner.’ I guess I was trying to think of the exact opposite of the word loser, a word easily defined as a kid who has to make himself an award…. Welcome to dollarshort.org.”
Hard though it may be to believe, Mena Trott’s early posts can be seen, in retrospect, as a kind of flashpoint for the blogging frenzy that now consumes so much of the tech-enabled planet. This isn’t because Trott’s was the world’s first Web log or the most popular, but because working on Dollarshort clued Trott in to a desperate problem in the world of blogs — a lack of powerful tools.
Blogger, the preeminent blog-building software of the time, was easy to use but limited in its functionality. Personalization is the soul of blogging; a blogger wants her blog to look different from every other blog out there, and this was difficult to pull off with Blogger and many of the other available tools. If she wanted Dollarshort to look — and to function — like no other site online, Mena Trott saw that she’d need to come up with an altogether new kind of blog-building program.
These are the humble origins of Movable Type, now widely considered to be the world’s most powerful blogging tool, the system that sits at the heart of the Web’s busiest blogs. The software, which Mena Trott designed and built with her husband Ben, a Perl coder extraordinaire, did not start the blogging craze — but MT, as it’s known, beautified blogging and sharpened the idea of what a blog could be, allowing many clever scribes to turn their idle musings into serious online endeavors. Among bloggers, Movable Type is thought of as the tool you turn to when your blog has become the heart and the brains of your operation — which explains why the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, John Kerry and George W. Bush, a trio that agrees on little, all embraced MT when they decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon.
This, at least, was the sunny reputation that had attached to Movable Type until a few months ago, when Six Apart, the company that Ben and Mena Trott founded to develop and market Movable Type, began, in the words of some in the blogosphere, “going corporate.”
This spring, when Six Apart (the name is a reference to the six-day age difference between Ben and Mena) released its newest version of MT, it announced plans to begin charging the most active users for a license to use the system (previous versions had been offered essentially for free). The news hit bloggers like a thunderclap; many accused the company of forgetting its roots and embracing soulless corporations instead of people.
Six Apart weathered the controversy and, according to its executives, emerged only stronger. Still, the company’s decision to charge customers to use Movable Type is an intriguing one, as it suggests a belief that blogging is, or will soon be, more than just a bastion for hobbyists, more than a place for political punditry and the sort of entertaining stream-of-consciousness musings that Mena Trott offers on her blog. When the folks at Six Apart talk about the promise of blogs and the future of Movable Type, they don’t talk about Instapundit or Talking Points Memo, two popular Movable Type blogs. Instead, they talk about law offices and media companies and software firms, and the benefits these businesses might see when their employees start blogging.
Competing, on the one side, with several deep-pocketed firms willing to give their blog software away for nothing and, on the other, with open-source developers committed to the notion that blogging should be free, Six Apart is building a blogging empire around what seems a crazy idea — that bloggers will pay for fine tools. Blogging may be provoking a revolution in the media and politics, concedes Anil Dash, a blogger and Six Apart vice president, but the revolution needs software — complex, powerful software that professionals can depend on. “And it just makes sense,” Dash says, “to pay for professional-level tools.”