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Six Apart hits its adolescence

Six Apart, the San Mateo-based start-up that is leading the blog tools market space, has all the makings of a Silicon Valley start-up legend.

The two founders - husband-and-wife team of Ben and Mena Trott - were high school sweethearts. They got way into Web publishing and created Moveable Type, arguably the best and most widely used blogging platform. In 2002, they formed Six Apart; the company name represents the number of days between their birth dates. Initially, they made Moveable Type available to fellow bloggers at no cost. About a year ago, they introduced the TypePad blog hosting service. In a couple of short years, they have debuted a subsidiary in Japan and have launched TypePad in France and Spain. Most of all, they are passionate about blogging. One measure of their early success: Venture investors seek introductions to them. And most everyone in the blogging business just refers to Six Apart as "Ben and Mena."

Definitely the stuff of legend, a legend about to take some twists and turns as the company enters its awkward adolescence. Last week, Six Apart rolled out Version 3.0 of Moveable Type. Bloggers had been waiting for this version, hoping that it would answer some difficult problems, particularly the issue of so- called comment spam, wherein spammers use the feedback mechanism of blogs to post promos for the same sort of junk they push in unwanted email.

Version 3.0 addresses that problem with the addition of the TypeKey authentication service. In effect, blog readers register with the TypeKey service to post comments on Moveable Type blogs. Blog authors tap into the TypeKey service to allow authenticated readers to post content while preventing spammers from dumping junk into their blogs. While some in the free-wheeling blog community bristle at the idea of registrations, comment spam has become such a problem for bloggers (who have been known to spend an hour or more a day mopping up after a spam attack) that the TypeKey approach looks pretty reasonable and quite promising a solution.

Beyond a number of fixes and a few features, the main advantage to Moveable Type 3.0 is that it is a developer's version of the product that supports the growing cottage industry of Web site design centered on blogging capability.
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If these are the main advantages of the new version, the primary drawback - in the minds of many bloggers - is Six Apart's new licensing policy. And you can imagine just how vocal thousands of customers can be - particularly when the company has given them the tools to be so outspoken.

The gist of the issue is this. In the past, Moveable Type was "free." Six Apart relied on an honor system of sorts. If you downloaded the product, liked it and used it, then you sent in a donation. The system has worked well enough to keep Six Apart in business during its first two years. But just how "honorable" are bloggers? If you divide donations into the number of downloads of Moveable Type, the average price of the platform is $.38. That's right, 38 cents.

Six Apart remains committed, Mena assures me, to a free version of Moveable Type. The current version will remain free. And according to the free-use policy, the free version allows one blogger to create up to three blogs.

Many have downloaded Moveable Type and are running massive blog sites, some with hundreds of authors - well beyond the suggested use of the product. These sites, of course, have encountered the comment spam problem in spades. And to give the bloggers their due, these folks have pressure tested the Moveable Type platform and helped Six Apart identify and fix problems in the software. These bloggers have eagerly anticipated the upgrade, and now here's the rub: The new license program dares to charge bloggers for the software.

Pricing isn't final, but it will cost something well south of $200 for personal use. Larger site licenses will cost more, but something considerably less than $99 a seat. Those bloggers who have been good enough to donate to Six Apart in the past will have that donation deducted from the cost of the software. The new license also limits the number of authors and blogs (although there are no planned technical limitations on the software; the limits are enforced on the honor system). And here's where the blogger community is outraged. Six Apart wants them to pay for something they gave for free before. Six Apart wants to limit the use, and - well, look, we've already violated the intended use by such numbers that we can't reel it back in without creating real and serious problems for our authors and our readers. Six Apart actually wants to build enterprise-class software and support its customers fully - without maxing out the Trotts' credit cards to do so.

Outrageous. In a post titled "Ben and Mena": "Trott, you forgot to dance with who brung ya." Tim Bishop, author of Geodog's MT Weblog, claims "Six Apart is reneging on a very public promise, and is treating the people who helped make Movable Type a success very poorly." While Bishop does make a nod to "Ben and Mena having done a great job," he contends that Moveable Type really owes its success to "the army of evangelists and contributors who sold the products to their friends, businesses and community organizations." (You'll find the post at
http://www.thebishop.net/geodog/archives/2004/05/13/ben_and_mena_ trott_you_forgot_to_dance_with_who_brung_ya.html.) Given the stats, I have to think Bishop is using the term "sold" very loosely.

And while he makes an impassioned argument, he's got it backwards. The Army of Evangelists owes its success to Six Apart. It was Six Apart that not only brought the evangelists to the dance, but threw the party in the first place.

I've heard from other bloggers, as well, bloggers with hundreds of sites that will be in violation of new licensing agreements if they upgrade. Bloggers who would very much like to be "legal," but simply can't afford the license fees for the huge systems they have created.

But the fact of the matter is simple: There will be no future to Moveable Type if Six Apart can't make a business out of it. And giving Moveable Type away for free hasn't proven to be a very effective model.

Clearly, Six Apart needs to address these vocal (and maybe even loyal) customers. And I'm confident that they will. Six Apart is very concerned and receptive to this kind of feedback that is now pummeling the company. In fact, while it may be difficult for the reactive blogging community to recognize, Six Apart is pushing through what will certainly be a challenging chapter in its life - its awkward adolescence - precisely because it supports the blogger community. And it needs to be positioned well to continue to develop quality software to support its customers - paying and otherwise.

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