Interview with Byrne Reese, Chairman of the Open Melody Software Group

Recently, we spoke with Byrne Reese, Chairman of the Open Melody Software Group. For those who are unaware, Melody is a publishing platform based off of Movable Type 4 code that has recently announced their first official release.

CC: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved with Movable Type and finally, Melody?

Byrne Reese

BR: My first exposure to Movable Type came way back when Movable Type was still in its infancy eight or nine years ago. Up until then, I maintained my own personal web site by hand – which was a fun for a time, but as I created more and more content, it started to become unwieldy. And when that happened, what was once fun, was starting to become a burden. To be honest, I am not sure what breadcrumb trail I followed that led me to Movable Type, all I remember is the “ah-ha” moment I had once I had found it.

And sure enough it changed how I conceptualized and how I went about building web sites overnight. But more than that, Movable Type was an application I enjoyed using. Its design really drew me in. I felt like I was using something really modern, really forward thinking, and yes, even ground breaking. I was apart of something that was big, and getting bigger. It was exciting.

Long story short, my love for the product, and my admiration and respect of TypePad, ultimately took me on a journey where I became a Product Manager at Six Apart in charge of TypePad and ultimately Movable Type. Being the Product Manager of Movable Type was a dream come true in many respects because it afforded me an opportunity to help lead the product in directions I had always wished it had taken. I helped architect and launch Movable Type Open Source, a devoted a great deal of time to fostering its community, and helped launch one of Six Apart’s most successful products ever: MT4.

When it finally was time for me to leave Six Apart, I did what I had counseled many aspiring bloggers and entrepenuers to do: build a business around what you love. And for me, that never stopped being helping people to build great products; and as you might guess my tool of choice was Movable Type.

However what I found, having thrust myself into the Movable Type Professional Community, was one challenge after another in trying to interface as professional with my former employer. Six Apart was in the midst of redefining itself, it was reorganizing itself, in the midst of all that, it simply didn’t have the resources to devote to the community to ensure that the patches and contributions being made by the outside world made their way into the product.

What I found was that the feelings of disappointment, turned frustration, were not unique to me, and in fact, many members of the community had felt the same way. So we started talking, and eventually the idea for Melody was hatched.

CC: What is your ultimate hope for Melody as a CMS?

BR: My sincerest hope is that we build a great product that people enjoy using. That’s it. Nothing grand, nor anything as ambitious as building a product that dominates an industry. We just know that there are lots of people out in the world who see a value in the publishing model that Movable Type and Melody excel at, and for those people we want to provide them with a product that elicits the same kind of thrill that I had when I saw Movable Type for the first time 8 years ago. We want to build a product that honors Movable Type’s legacy and reputation as being one of the most secure and scalable publishing systems around. And if in the process, more and more people come to the platform and select it to power their web site, then great.

CC: How well received has the project been since its first release of version 1.0 not too long ago?

BR: I think the product has been very well received, but I also think a lot of people still don’t know about it. We made a very conscious decision to break with Movable Type, and its name, because we wanted to free ourselves of certain legacies of its brand. That has helped the product a great deal, because it allows our users’ impressions of the product to be shaped more prominently by their direct experience with it, rather than by the FUD perpetuated by it predecessor’s competitors.

CC: Do you have any major customers running it as of yet that you’d like to share?

BR: The most recent site to have launched on top of Melody is The Morton Report, a site that was launched in concert with the Royal Wedding – by acclaimed biographer Andrew Morton.

What is interesting however in my opinion is not exclusively who has built a site on top of Melody itself, but how many Movable Type users have built websites and products that rely on Melody technology. When we started Melody, it was always our desire not just to create a CMS, but to infuse the Movable Type community as large with tools, resources, plugins, and themes of all kinds.

And because Melody’s design centers around a more modular approach to feature development, many of Melody’s primary underpinnings, like Config Assistant, Theme Manager, and more, power many Movable Type blogs and web sites today as well, and are considered indispensable in every Movable Type professional’s tool belt.

And in that way, Melody has been a huge success.

CC: What is your position with regards to static publishing (Melody) versus dynamic publishing (WordPress)?

BR: It is hard to argue that there is a technology that scales more effortlessly and cost effectively than static publishing. And if you are operating a high traffic web site, no matter what platform you use, be it WordPress, Drupal or anything else, the technology involved in making it scale is exactly what Melody has been designed from the ground up to do: cache site content in order to minimize its load on the database and deliver content quickly and efficiently. So in the Melody community, we don’t think of it as “static publishing,” we think of it as pre-emptive caching. It’s a subtle but important rhetorical difference that we think more accurately portrays static publishing’s value.

That being said, we understand the importance of dynamic publishing, especially as it relates to the process of designing and building a web site. When you are in the throws of pulling a site together, nothing is more annoying than editing your site’s templates, and then having to republish a page prior to being able to see your change in a browser. Ideally, one should simply: edit template, refresh browser, repeat. That is why we are working hard at rebuilding Melody’s legacy dynamic publishing backend and optimizing it around the designer’s and developer’s workflows. Then when a site is ready for production, to provide a seamless transition to the site owner for a more scalable model of publishing and pre-emptive caching.

CC: What was it about Movable Type 4 that made your team decide to branch out from it to form Melody? Were there significant changes in MT5 that you didn’t/don’t agree with?

BR: Early in Melody’s history the community was faced with this decision. We had already begun development of Melody based upon MT4, when Six Apart announced that MT5 was being developed. They did not however tell us when MT5 was going to be released, nor were they open to sharing their source code with us at the time. So our decision was simple: wait for Six Apart to make MT5 available in a form so that we could collaborate or work with what we had. We chose to work with what we had so that we could keep the momentum we were building, rather than reset the clock on Melody’s development.

Movable Type 5 is a great product, no doubt, but I feel that it is a product to meet the needs of a market more unique to the Japanese market, where its current company is headquartered. In the Japanese market, the largest user of Movable Type are hosting companies who host tens, if not hundreds of different sites for their customers. This led Six Apart to develop the notion of “web sites” or a more hierarchical approach to web site and blog design and architecture.

Personally, I think this is a very cool feature, but I also feel that its implementation lacked polish, and made for many users Movable Type far more complicated than it needed to be. One day I hope to fold in the web site feature of MT5 into Melody, as we have done for many of MT5’s features; but when we do, I hope to do it in a way that allows simple systems to remain simple, without introducing undo complexity.

CC: Where do you see Melody fitting in best in the CMS landscape? News publications, schools, universities, etc?

BR: To be honest, I don’t think about Melody in this way. I used to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Movable Type in this back when I was its Product Manager. Now, I just focus on making Melody a great product, one that embodies the values of its community more closely, and one that continues to build upon those aspects that made Movable Type so great: scalability, reliability and security. I trust, that if we just focus on that, then those who share our values, values we feel transcend markets and industries, will find a welcome home in Melody.

CC: Any plans to offer commercial support or a commercial edition of the product as adoption increases?

BR: As far as developing fee-based commercial software packaged distributed through the Melody web site? Then no, we are not planning on that. Doing so would violate our community’s core principals around open source and providing a software solution free of a commercial interest.

Now, if anyone in our professional community wants to pursue a commercial software or service offering, then we would welcome it, and in fact encourage it. We see commercial software as having an indispensable role to play in virtually every successful open source project. WordPress for example succeeded in part because of a vibrant economy that was built by designers selling proprietary themes. That economy directly and indirectly fueled WordPress’ growth because every designer building and selling themes became a salesman for the platform itself. These designers were in part motivated by the love they had for WordPress, for sure, but they were also motivated by their need to sustain a living.

Speaking for myself, I love open source, and I believe Melody’s success will ultimately stem from the values embodied by the open source software movement. But for me, the GPL is just a license. It is not a religion. And while I am a staunch supporter of the GPL, and of open source licenses in general, I do not see myself as its standard bearer. I am just a guy who likes to build cool products, and who likes to help others do the same.

CC: Where do you see Melody in the next 3-5 years?

BR: I believe Melody will continue to grow, and continue to prove itself a worthy successor to Movable Type. As it does so, I believe its community will continue to grow, and with it the number of contributions received by the community. And as more and more people contribute, I see greater and greater potential for Melody to once again be the kind of indisputable leader that Movable Type once was.

CC: Are there ways in which users or would be developers can assist the Melody project?

BR: Always! Contributing though is not limited to developers, in fact, the most valuable forms of contribution rarely come in the form of code. So how does one get started on the path of becoming a contributor? The first step is easy: use the product. Then begin to imagine ways you could make your experience with the product better. Perhaps there was a piece of documentation you searched for that would have helped you in some way, but you couldn’t find it – if so, endeavor to write it. Or perhaps you appreciated the help someone gave you in the forums – if so, aim to repay the favor by becoming a contributor to the forums yourself. Or perhaps you have the opportunity to influence someone’s choice of CMS – if so, encourage them to give Melody a shot. There are literally countless ways one can contribute to any open source project, but behind every contribution is a love for the project that compels them to participate in more active and hands-on way. And every time you share your passion for the project with another, in whatever form that may take, you are contributing.

CC: Are you financially backed by any specific sources or purely self funded?

BR: Right now Melody receives absolutely no funding from any source. All work on the project is done on a volunteer basis. That being said, a number of professionals, including my own company Endevver, have begun offering services on top of the platform, and have begun channelling their clients toward building and supporting the development of software that is compatible with both Movable Type and Melody. So in that way, Melody is funded indirectly by those individuals and companies who have selected to use Melody as their CMS and who have in turn paid a professional to augment the platform to address their unique needs and requirements.

CC: Do you still contribute to or assist with Movable Type development or is your time fully devoted to Melody as of yet?

BR: Strictly speaking, all of my time is devoted to Melody. But then again, I don’t fully disambiguate between the two, given that much of the software we develop for Melody, also works with Movable Type. One day in Melody’s future, it may diverge so stridently from Movable Type that the two become distinct from one another, but for the time being  I see Melody community and all that it creates as playing an important role in not only in Melody’s development, but also Movable Type. In fact, nothing is more representative of that fact than MT 5.1 recently release notes in which is acknowledges a number of community contributors, many of whom are also contributors to Melody.

CC: Are there any major upcoming enhancements or features that you are working on for the next release that you’d like to share with us?

BR: Melody 1.1 development is already in full swing. With every release we focus on improving both the core architecture of the product as well as building new features that users would find both exciting and valuable.

On the backend we are working to create a cleaner separation between our templates and the javascript that powers much of the user interface. This paves the way for us to shed the highly proprietary javascript that powered Movable Type, and in turn embrace a more robust and well supported framework like jQuery.

We are also looking to completely retool Melody’s dynamic publishing engine so that designers can more easily take advantage of it when building and designing web sites.

We are also working to backport more of MT5’s more popular features, like its new listing framework that provides a much richer, and more flexible way of managing content within the admin UI. It also makes it much easier for plugin developers to build their own custom listing screens and further reduces the amount of Perl one has to know in order to build a plugin.

And lastly, my company, Endevver, has spear headed a project to incubate a new design for the Melody user interface. Our desire is to release the new UI as a stand alone and optional plugin alongside Melody 1.1. This will give the new UI time to mature and stabilize, and give the community time to get used to the new design… and if they like it, hopefully fold it into the core distribution at a later date.

CC: What do you see as the future for Movable Type as a publishing platform?

BR: Personally I think that never before has Movable Type and Melody been a better platform for site development, especially as products like js-Kit, Disqus and Facebook prove that they are far more effective at delivering richer, more valuable experiences around commenting and social networking then the CMS itself. The role of the CMS therefore is being refocused around its intended core competency: the management and publication of content.

CC: Thank you Byrne.


You can learn more about Melody on their website: Melody CMS