WordPress 2.5 Puts Usability First
In the early days of the Web, you showed that you were "with it" by telling people that you had a home page -- a domain or page on the Web that said something about you, your work, and your interests. It was always interesting to see how often people updated their home pages; some people changed their sites every day, while others would go for months without altering anything.
Then, seemingly overnight, there was a dramatic change: Instead of updating their sites every few weeks, some people started to make modifications every day, or even every few hours. Instead of writing just about their professional lives, these people wrote about anything and everything that occurred to them. And instead of removing older material, they simply moved it further down the page, such that the newest material was at the top.
What I'm describing, of course, is the birth of "Web logs," whose name was shortened to "weblogs," and then finally just "blogs." Writing a blog, of course, is known as "blogging," and the people who do it (like me, writing this piece) are "bloggers." Blogging has become a massive phenomenon, and even a commercial one; there are now numerous examples, OStatic and GigaOm included, of for-profit blogs.
If you want to create a blog in 2008, you have many options. You can go to any of several blogging sites (e.g., blogger.com, blogspot.com, wordpress.com, or livejournal.com) and create one within minutes. Alternatively you can create a blog on a social networking site, such as Facebook or MySpace. (LinkedIn, with its corporate image, hasn't introduced a blogging module. Yet.)
Or if you're like millions of people who don't mind getting their hands a bit dirty with software configuration, you can download and install a blogging package. One of the most sophisticated such packages is WordPress, which is distributed under the GNU Public License. Version 2.5 of WordPress was released at the end of last week, and it is a significant improvement over an already impressive piece of software.
WordPress is extremely easy to install: Assuming that you're running a server that supports PHP and MySQL, it should take less than 30 minutes to set up your blog. Updates are equally simple, typically taking me less than five minutes. The biggest hurdles are creating a MySQL database for the blog, and then setting your Apache/PHP configuration such that a particular directory knows to execute PHP programs.
Once you have created the database and configured your Web server, the WordPress Web-based installer takes care of everything else. Within a few minutes, you should be able to write postings on your blog, using an easy-to-use, Web-based rich-text editor. If your Internet connection goes down, or if you accidentally shut off your computer, don't worry; WordPress silently saves drafts of your postings throughout the writing process, so you will probably lose little, if any, of what you were writing.
WordPress 2.5 includes many new features. But the most obvious change is the user interface, which has been improved and streamlined to a very large degree. I personally used to get lost in some of WordPress's menus, not sure about where certain functionality was located. With the new version, which I installed as soon as it came out, this hasn't happened: The menus are clearer, with the most common functionality getting center stage. If anyone needs proof that an open-source project can have a good user interface, look no further than WordPress.
In particular, the "dashboard," which is the default administrative page, now has clear, large links at the top of the page that allow you to create new posts or static pages -- two things that bloggers presumably want to do quite a bit.
One of the key factors in the success of WordPress is its plugin architecture. There are hundreds of plugins that you can download and install without even restarting Apache; just stick them into the appropriate directory, and you have a customized blogging system.
One of the most common, and powerful, plugins is the "Akismet" spam filter. Anyone who runs a blog that the number of spam comments is overwhelming, such that requiring that all comments be approved manually becomes an overwhelming task. Akismet is a commercial anti-spam service for blogs; while this is a commercial service, it is free for personal use, undoubtedly because this helps to feed lots of spam and potential spam into their database.
I have been impressed with WordPress since I began using it several years ago, and I continue to be impressed with every release. If you want to run your own blog, or if you're interested in seeing how an open-source program can make usability a main concern, then you should take a close look at WordPress.