Investigating Textpattern

With the profusion of Content Management Systems out there, open source and otherwise, my curiosity has been aroused for a while now. In fact, Automattic’s aspirations for WordPress (the engine powering this blog) now seem to go beyond blogging and include wider CMS-style usage. Some may even have put the thing to those kinds of uses but I am of the opinion that it has a way to go yet before it can put itself on a par with the likes of Drupal and Joomla!.

Speaking of Drupal, I decided to give it a go a while back and came away with the impression that it’s a platform for an entire website. At the time, I was attracted by the idea of having one part of a website on Drupal and another using WordPress but the complexity of the CSS in the Drupal template thwarted my efforts and I desisted. The heavy connection between template and back end cut down on the level of flexibility too. That mix of different platforms might seem odd in architectural terms but my main website also had a custom PHP/MySQL driven photo gallery too and migrating everything into Drupal wasn’t going to be something that I was planning. In hindsight, I might have been trying to get Drupal to perform a role for which it was never meant so I am not holding its non-fulfillment of my requirements against it. Drupal may have changed since I last looked at it but I decided to give an alternative a go regardless.

Towards the end of last year, I began to look at Textpattern (otherwise known as Txp) in the same vein and it worked well enough after a little effort that I was able to replace what was once a visitor dossier with a set of travel jottings. In some respects, Textpattern might feel less polished when you start to compare it with alternatives like WordPress or Drupal but the inherent flexibility of its design leaves a positive impression. In short, I was happy to see that it allowed me to achieve what I wanted to do.

If I remember correctly, Textpattern’s default configuration is that of a blog and it can be used for that purpose. So, I got in some content and started to morph the thing into what I had in mind. My ideas weren’t entirely developed so some of that was going on while I went about bending Txp to my will. Most of that involved tinkering in the Presentation part of the Txp interface though. It differs from WordPress in that the design information like (X)HTML templates and CSS are stored in the database rather than in the file system à la WP. Txp also has its own tag language called Textile and, though it contains conditional tags, I find that encasing PHP in <txp:php></txp:php> tags is a more succinct way of doing things; only pure PHP code can be used in this way and not a mixture of such in <?php ?> tags and (X)HTML. A look at the tool’s documentation together with perusal of Apress’ Textpattern Solutions got me going in this new world (it was thus for me, anyway). The mainstay of the template system is the Page and each Section can use a different Page. Each Page can share components and, in Txp, these get called Forms. These are included in a Page using Textile tags of the form <txp:output_form form=”form1″ />. Style information is edited in another section and you can have several style sheets too.

The Txp Presentation system is made up of Sections, Pages, Forms and Styles. The first of these might appear in the wrong place when being under the Content tab would seem more appropriate but the ability to attach different page templates to different sections places their configuration where you find it in Textpattern and the ability to show or hide sections might have something to do with it too. As it happens, I have used the same template for all bar the front page of the site and got it to display single or multiple articles as appropriate using the Category system. It may be a hack but it appears to work well in practice. Being able to make a page template work in the way that you require really offers a great amount of flexibility and I have gone with one sidebar rather than two as found in the default set up.

Txp also has facility to add plugins (look in the Admin section of the UI) and this is very different from WordPress in that installation involves the loading of an encoded text file, probably for sake of maintaining the security and integrity of your installation. I added the navigation facility for my sidebar and breadcrumb links in this manner and back end stuff like Tiny MCE editor and Akismet came as plugins too. There may not be as many of these for Textpattern but the ones that I found were enough to fulfill my needs. If there are plugin configuration pages in the administration interface, you will find these under the Extensions tab.

To get the content in, I went with the more laborious copy, paste and amend route. Given that I was coming from the plain PHP/XHTML way of doing things, the import functionality was never going to do much for me with its focus on Movable Type, WordPress, Blogger and b2. The fact that you only import content into a particular section may displease some too. Peculiarly, there is no easy facility for Textpattern to Textpattern apart from doing a MySQL database copy. Some alternatives to this were suggested but none seemed to work as well as the basic MySQL route. Tiny MCE made editing easier once I went and turned off Textile processing of the article text. This was done on a case by case basis because I didn’t want to have to deal with any unintended consequences arising from turning it off at a global level.

While on the subject of content, this is also the part of the interface where you manage files and graphics along with administering things like comments, categories and links (think blogroll from WordPress). Of these, it is the comment or link facilities that I don’t use and even have turned comments off in the Txp preferences. I use categories to bundle together similar articles for appearance on the same page and am getting to use the image and file management side of things as time goes on.

All in all, it seems to work well even if I wouldn’t recommend it to many to whom WordPress might be geared. My reason for saying that is because it is a technical tool and is used best if you are prepared to your hands dirtier from code cutting than other alternatives. I, for one, don’t mind that at all because working in that manner might actually suit me. Nevertheless, not all users of the system need to have the same level of knowledge or access and it is possible to set up users with different permissions to limit their exposure to the innards of the administration. In line with Textpattern’s being a publishing tool, you get roles such as Publisher (administrator in other platforms), Managing Editor, Copy Editor, Staff Writer, Freelancer, Designer and None. Those names may mean more to others but I have yet to check out what those access levels entail because I use it on a single user basis.

There may be omissions from Txp like graphical presentation of visitor statistics in place of the listings that are there now and the administration interface might do with a little polish but it does what I want from it and that makes those other considerations less important. That more cut down feel makes it that little more useful in my view and the fact that I have created A Wanderer’s Miscellany may help to prove the point. You might even care to take a look at it to see what can be done and I am sure that it isn’t even close to exhausting the talents of Textpattern. I can only hope that I have done justice to it in this post.

Technical considerations regarding the discussion aspect of blogging

When making a start in the world of blogging, there are so many things to consider that you almost need a trial run first to learn the lingo. In fact, getting up to speed by using a service like that offered by Blogger or WordPress.com seems a very sensible starting point. Even so, the business is like building a house in that you only really what you are knowing after you have done the deed and made all the mistakes. That is particularly true when you go down the self-administered blog route. For starters, it’s so easy to pick the wrong domain name or hosting provider. Selecting your blogging software is the next step but that may not be so tricky; WordPress does a reasonable job and there’s always Movable Type, Expression Engine, Drupal (yes, really) or Habari.

That mention of blogging software brings me to something that I encountered recently: commenting functionality. I am coming around to the idea that this is probably something that needs to be considered up front because of the nature of blogging. After all, anyone that reads The Blog Herald regularly should be familiar with the idea of blogging conversations and that means that the technology to make it happen should be easy for visitors to use and easy for bloggers to administer. However, the two can collide. For one thing, there are a myriad of choices available to the blogger and the blight of comment spam is ever pervasive and growing.

When it comes to comment spam, it is best to realise that there are two sources of responses to a blog post: visitor comments or trackbacks (pingbacks?) from other blogs. I am of the opinion that the latter is probably the channel where most of the detritus travels and various anti-spam solutionss are on offer to curb its spread. Names from the WordPress world like Akismet, Spam Karma, Simple Trackback Validation and Bad Behaviour come to mind. The former can also be used, particularly when the unscrupulous make use of low cost labour in low cost countries, and that’s when the thorny questions of user registration and CAPTCHA‘s arise. There is something to be said for not going to extremes with these and just stick with less onerous rules and filtering on the server side.

I must admit to having staggering into forcing visitors to register prior to adding a comment and then making them log in thereafter. I think that it’s for security reasons but WordPress creates a password and then sends it to the person who is registering rather than displaying on a web page. That can create another problem: what happens if the email fails to arrive? In the last week, this has happened with a visitor to my hillwalking blog and there could be a number of reasons for the non-arrival of the relevant email. One is ironic: being an automated email, it is getting stuck in the spam filters of the recipient’s mailbox and so never gets to them. It could also be a bug with WordPress itself (I have raised a ticket and am awaiting what Automattic might have to say to it) or a consequence of some setting made by a hosting provider. All of that makes it hard to track down the cause of the issue but it kicks off other thoughts as to its resolution. One is to remove the needed for registration and logging in in the first place but there are third party services that may help too. The former has turned out to be the case for this blog and it seems to be performing well enough so it is an acceptable option.

When it comes to using third party comment handling systems, what needs to be considered is how well they work with your blog. For instance, I gave Disqus a quick whirl and soon realised that I needed to update the themes for my WordPress blogs if I was to use it on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, it worked fine but I was left wondering if it would have been better to have brought it in when I started a blog rather than part way through and with comments made using the existing WordPress functionality. There’s also Intense Debate and I am almost certain that there are more like it but I’ll be sticking with what WordPress offers for now. The theme for my hillwalking blog has been modified to allow prospective commenters to get in touch with me if they are having problems. That’s is only an interim approach while I consider what the way forward will be.

Keeping an eye on future WordPress releases

I haven’t mentioned WordPress in a while but it’s now heading for version 2.5 after 2.4 was skipped. Because I want to ensure that upgrading doesn’t cause problems for my blogs, I have been picking up nightly builds with Subversion from WordPress.org. The following is the command to be used and it works fine on my Ubuntu system in the folder where I want the WordPress installation directory to live. If you want to find out more about Subversion, there is a free book on the web.

svn co http://svn.automattic.com/wordpress/trunk/

The main event is the new dashboard and that seems to be taking cues from Movable Type (I gave that a whirl recently so I may say something here about it yet). Everything is still there along with tantalising hints of prospects for customisation. In the interim, you can change the front page feeds so that they originate from other than the world of WordPress, not a bad thing given that I found WordPress Planet feeds were annoying often. Alternate theme support for the dashboard seems to be on the to do list as is something for plugins; we’ll see what comes of the latter. Otherwise, nothing seems to be changed or, more importantly, broken and I am able to get a mirror of my outdoors blog up and running with the only problems of any note coming from the new web address, not at all major. I’ll continue to tabs on what’s happening and being forewarned of any future problems is a big bonus.

Update: I found a good summary of what to expect on Blog Herald. This is one for a return visit, methinks.