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SixApart Plus LiveJournal: The New Elephant In The Room

SixApart have announced they're acquiring LiveJournal in a friendly takeover. This is actually bigger news at a cultural level than Microsoft breaking in with "MSN Spaces" or even than Google acquiring Pyra.

Whether the merger can be successful at all will hinge largely on how seriously the "bloggers" at SixApart take the "LiveJournalers", but there are powerful synergies to be achieved here that I'm not sure either SixApart or LiveJournal really understand. There are significant cultural differences between the two "communities" that are commonly parsed as socioeconomic (by the LiveJournalers) and generational (by the MoveableType-focused bloggers). There are lots of dimensions to the cultural split, and of course it's often an error to speak of statistical humans, but the more salient long-range divide is really hands-dirty versus hands-clean: Do you open the hood, or do you rely on your mechanic? Do you mod your vehicle (or PC case or backpack), or do you leave it as-is? And when you mod, are you picking from a menu, or thinking up ideas on your own?

And that's the dimension on which the new, merged SixApart-LiveJournal entity will attain success or not: The continuum from commodity to customization -- from people who are content to buy and use off-the-shelf to the country of the hard-core modifiers. LiveJournal is off the shelf, with essentially menu-driven site customizations that are still very branded as "LiveJournal" sites. MoveableType, and TypePad to a lesser extent, are under-the-hood affairs, which are capable of driving rich visual and functional customization. They're right that they don't need to merge the products or the codebases -- the merger of the two organizations will succeed at a basic level if they can overcome cultural biases. But if they can learn to move fluidly (and cost-effectively) along that continuum from commodity to customization, they will morph into a truly powerful challenger to established players, and maybe even a cultural force to be reckoned with.

This is more than mass-customization redux; it's really the first true-coming of a model that was heralded by Saturn in the '90s, but it goes beyond the product delivery to the customers desire to make the "product" their own. Penn Jillette sang an early paean to this desire back in 1990, and Toyota recently started a whole division based on the idea that what you might really want to do is plug stuff in after the fact. But hey, they'll be happy to let the dealer do some value-adds for you, too...

But back to the merger. Technical issues are certainly important. Mena Trott plays up LiveJournal's experience with scalability, and that's important for SixApart: TypePad is probably as scalable as MoveableType could be made in the relevant timeframe, but my sense is that it doesn't achieve the economies of scale they'll need to accommodate 30 million new bloggers a year, and I'm sure this will have occurred to Ben Trott. They'll need to be cautious, though, about taking an overly-architectural tack; considering recent advances in automation and system virtualization, it's probably more cost effective (and almost certainly quicker-to-market) to build a big, comprehensive automation and virtualization infrastructure than it is to re-architect MoveableType for scalability. (Incidentally, that approach would also give them better traction while moving back and forth on that critical commodity-customization continuum.)

All this having been said, I think it's an even bet whether or not SixApart will "get it" enough to really synergize their merger. They're really good with feedback, as their quick response to last May's license fiasco demonstrates. But they also have a history of making exactly the mistake that precipitated that problem: They try to retain too much control over their user base. I would have been a big fan of MoveableType in its early days, except for one little detail: Their license forbade any licensee from charging for customization services. "That's our business," they explained. "We make money doing that." I saw that as short-sighted, and time proved me right: There are now no such restrictions, and part of the reason is that people went out and went nuts modifying MoveableType, and probably in many cases in violation of those license terms.

My point is that even though they corrected, they did made that same mistake twice, and now they're saying things that lead me to believe they're missing some crucial points. So the real bottom line on the success of this merger might be whether people of more expansive vision will be guiding the course of the company, or whether they'll still be taking protectionist gut-checks at every step.

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