Written by Guest blogger, Andrew Watson

In this article we'll compare Six Apart and Automattic, two independent firms focused on blogging software. Most other blog platforms are owned by big companies (e.g. Google owns Blogger), so the competition between Six Apart and Automattic is intriguing. Six Apart is the firm behind Movable Type, TypePad, LiveJournal, and Vox, while Automattic is associated with WordPress.

Overview Comparison



Six Apart
Automattic
Founded

July 2002

December 2005

First release available for download

Movable Type 1.0, in October 2001

WordPress 1.0, in January 2004

Free download?

Initially no charge (but donations welcome), later introduced tiered pricing

Free/open source under GPL

Subsequently launched hosted service(s)

TypePad, LiveJournal, Vox

WordPress.com

Acquisitions

Ublog, Danga Interactive (LiveJournal), Rojo

None


Similarities

Apart from both being independent companies (i.e. not owned by bigcos), the overview table shows further similarities. In each case, the founders made software available for download prior to founding the firm. Ben and Mena Trott founded Six Apart nine months after making Movable Type available. Matt Mullenweg founded Automattic just under two years after first making WordPress available. Each firm subsequently introduced hosted software.

Contrasts

One of the most significant differences between the firms, in terms of product history, is that WordPress was free/open source at release. For those already familiar with free/open source software: WordPress was a fork of b2, which was under the GPL, so WordPress was in effect GPL'd before it existed. To explain some of the terms associated with such software: the blogging tool b2 was released under the GNU General Public License. This license allows you (or me, or Matt Mullenweg) to change the software, provided that if you distribute your derivative work, you do so under the GPL. Hence it would be possible for you or anyone else to build a fork from WordPress, just as WordPress itself was originally a fork from b2.

While WordPress was built on an existing and free foundation, Movable Type was written from scratch. Movable Type was in a sense free at first release. Ben and Mena did not demand payment, and neither (when it was initially founded) did Six Apart.

Then, on May 13 2004, Mena Trott blogged that It's About Time Six Apart got its licensing and pricing "right". Mena's post, and the changes it announced, was unpopular with many people who blogged using Movable Type. For example, Carthik Sharma remarked that with Six Apart's new policies in place, "it’s about time Movable Type users moved to WordPress" and then provided guidelines for bloggers wishing to make the move.

Hosted Services

Each firm offers hosted blogging, as well as a downloadable product. Six Apart has three hosted services, as the table above shows. Automattic has one, at WordPress.com (WordPress.org is the home of the downloadable product).

WordPress.com uses the freemium pricing model. There is no charge to create a basic blog, but premium services are available at a price. One example of such a service is domain mapping; it is due to my purchase of domain mapping that the URI changingway.org points to my blog (the original and basic URI for which was changingway.wordpress.com). Automattic reserves the right to run Adsense on WordPress.com blogs, although it does not seem to exercise this right frequently.

Revenue from premium services and from Adsense are not the only benefits of WordPress.com to Automattic. The site also illustrates the scalability of the WordPress software; there are now over a million blogs at WordPress.com.

Six Apart's hosted services use a variety of pricing models. Its original hosted service, TypePad, uses a tiered pricing scheme. Hence in pricing, as in look and feel, it is the most similar to Movable Type. There is no free price point at TypePad.com. However free TypePad blogs are available at Friendster.com; Friendster runs ads on these blogs.

LiveJournal, when acquired by Six Apart in January 2005, used the freemium model. There are currently three main LiveJournal account types: as well as the original Basic and Paid, there is Plus, under which LiveJournal provides extra features in return for being allowed to run ads on the blog.

Vox, which was launched by Six Apart in October 2006, is free of charge and ad-supported. Of all the hosted services described in this post, it is the one that most emphasizes and encourages social networking and multimedia.


Misc

Three further Automattic products merit mention. WordPress Multi-User enables the building of hosted services based on WordPress, and so is used by blog system administrators. Akismet is a spam detection service, not limited to WordPress or even to blogs in terms of the software that can use it; it is free for personal use and a paid service for commercial use.

BBpress is forum software, originally written to power the various WordPress-related online forums, and then made available for download under the GPL.


Free and open source models

Mention of the GPL brings us back to the point of free/open source software. Although the fact that WordPress has always been open source is significant, the firms are closer together in terms of open source software than they have ever been. Six Apart has made two large steps toward the open source model. The first was the acquisition of LiveJournal, which is open source software (see LiveJournal.org). The second step was part of the recent announcement of Movable Type 4. There will be a completely open source version.

Turning now to Automattic, there is a view that services such as WordPress.com represent a step away from free software. Although WordPress.com is based on WordPress Multi-User, which is in turn based on WordPress, the source for WordPress.com is not available. The GPL does not oblige Automattic to make the WordPress.com source available. This is because WordPress.com is accessed using a web browser, rather than by being downloaded to, and run on, the blogger's computer system. Since the WordPress.com software is not distributed, there is no obligation under the GPL to make the source available.

This is regarded by some free software advocates as a loophole in the GPL (and one that persists in version 3 of the GPL). However, it would not be appropriate to single out Automattic for "exploiting the loophole". If it is exploitation, then other firms - such as Google - are far larger exploiters than Automattic. Further, most of the WordPress.com code is the code for WordPress itself, much of this code was written by Automattic employees, and all of the WordPress code is available under the GPL.

Conclusion

One of the other similarities between Six Apart and Automattic is that each is privately held. Hence one of the difficulties of comparing them is that financial data is not available. On a financial note, there is a curious absence of acquisition rumors about these firms. Given the centrality of blogging to Web 2.0, I am sure that acquiring one of these blogging indies has been considered at the bigcos. However, neither seems eager to be acquired.

The title of this essay is Six Apart and Automattic, rather than Six Apart versus Automattic. The purpose is to contrast, rather than to predict a winner. But the firms are certainly competitors. For example, individuals looking for free hosted blogging may well consider both Vox and WordPress.com, as well as Blogger. However, I believe that the various segments of the blogging software market provide many opportunities for the "major indies" like Six Apart and Automattic, as well as for bigcos such as Google. What do you think?

Andrew Watson blogs at changingway.org using WordPress. He is on his second career, having left the software industry to become a business school professor.