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6/22/2007
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Review: Movable Type 4.0 Beta Offers Radical Changes For Dedicated Bloggers

The next version of this professional-level blogging solution boasts a revamped interface, an open-source licensing option, and an impressive range of new features.

Since its debut in 2001, Movable Type has been regarded as a professional-level blogging solution, with many features that have been adopted by other programs (like the TrackBack function). Despite its wide-ranging capacities, free services like Blogger, LiveJournal (now owned by Movable Type’s parent company SixApart), and the open-source blogging system WordPress have kept Movable Type from really striding into the foreground. But its core of dedicated users (me included) and developers have stuck with it, and now are rushing to try out the just-released beta of Movable Type 4.0.

It was worth the wait. MT 4 sports a radically reworked interface and internal API, a new open-source licensing option (earlier MT editions were commercial, or free but closed-source), and functions that make MT work more like a full-blown content-management system. The beta was and still is rough -- the first iteration was amazingly buggy -- but it’s already gone through a few rounds of fixups that incorporate many community-developed features and make it into a usable product instead of just a "technology preview."



Movable Type 4.0’s user interface, a total overhaul from previous versions, puts far more of the program at your disposal with far fewer clicks.

(Click image to enlarge.)

The differences between the new beta and the current version of MT (3.32) are immediately obvious, even in beta. The installation process has been cleaned up and streamlined -- you still need to understand things like UNIX permissions and how to unpack archives on the target server, but getting connected to your database and importing an existing MT blog is far easier. A newly-created MT 4 setup comes with a sample blog and some other predefined settings, which makes it a little easier to wrap your head around how things work if you’re a newcomer.

If you want to selectively import content from MT 3, you can use the export and import functions in both editions of MT to get the job done. One common complaint about trying to restore a MT database backup was that the backup files were often too big to be processed in one go. Consequently, MT 4 now sports a native backup utility which splits the resulting archive file into manageable pieces.

The redesigned user interface makes it a lot easier to see blog-wide or site-wide events at a glance. I’ve typically created browser shortcuts to common functions like inspecting all unscreened blog comments, and I’ll probably still do that in MT 4, but the new layout cuts way down on the amount of clicking needed to find a particular command.

Product Info
Movable Type 4 Beta
Six Apart, Ltd.
www. sixapart.com
Price: Free for personal use; licensing for final version TBA; upgrades to version 4 available with current version 3 licensing.
Summary: It’s not clear if MT 4 can, or should, lure away users of other blogging solutions, but MT 4 is fast shaping up to be a must-have upgrade for existing users.

The reports and summaries generated by MT can be customized using the same template language used to build sites in MT. That template language, incidentally, now sports some oft-requested features like conditional tags (“publish posts marked with this tag but not that one”). Another function that’s been missing from MT for too long -- live preview of unpublished pages -- is now a standard feature instead of a third-party plug-in.

One of the most important new additions is a file/asset manager, which pushes Movable Type that much closer to being a full-blown content management system. When you upload a file -- an image or some other piece of content, like a PDF -- its default path is wherever a blog entry for today would normally be filed, so you don’t have to manually create a directory tree for uploads. You’re also given the option to immediately insert an uploaded file into a new entry, and the management functions for uploaded files are strongly reminiscent of the way entries themselves are also handled. If you want to re-use an existing piece of content, you can fire up the file manager and search by filename, or by metadata tags applied to the file in MT. It’s a good system, although I hope to also make use of it through external blogging solutions (like Windows Live Writer, my current favorite) as well as MT’s own interface.

It’s not clear if MT 4 can, or should, lure away users of other blogging solutions like WordPress, but even while it’s still in beta, MT 4 is fast shaping up to be a must-have upgrade for existing MT users. One major barrier to upgrading, even after MT 4 goes final, is third-party plug-ins. Backwards compatibility isn’t guaranteed for 3.x plug-ins in MT 4, so if you’re using plug-ins authored specifically for MT 3.x, you’ll probably want to wait until a 4.x-specific version comes out.

Such issues aside, an upgrade to MT 4 is definitely in my future when it’s fully baked.

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