Blogger vs. Radio

· Weblog Concepts

Well, I’ve slacked on posting this info in a timely manner, partly out of fear of overlooking some key Blogger feature and getting jumped on. I’m also trying to be organized and systematic about this but only partially succeeding. It’s nice to get a conversation started and bring out further details as we go, but it’s more useful to present the information with some kind of helpful structure. (This is one reason why I think after I’ve gone through all the initial head-to-head matchups with the blog tools I’m familiar with, I’ll try to stabilize the information using Radio’s “stories” feature.) Here are some of the differences between Radio and Blogger:
Where the Client Lives
The Radio client is an application that runs on your (Macintosh or Windows, only) desktop. The Blogger client is browser based (using Javascript) and can be run from any web browser anywhere. This means that Blogger is inherently more portable, although it is possible to install Radio on a server that’s visible on the Net and then log into it remotely to update one’s site.
Where Your Data Lives
In most blog applications your content is stored in a database and then combined with a template when the pages are rendered. The Radio database resides on your own computer (it’s really more like a structured series of text files for the most part, as I understand it), while the Blogger database resides on Pyra Labs’ servers (just as the LiveJournal database lives on LJ’s servers). If your Radio blog is munged or disappears, you can republish your data elsewhere with ease. If your Blogger data vanishes (not that this is necessarily likely), you may lose your data. The database contents should not be confused with the content of the actual rendered pages.
Where Your Site is Hosted
Both Radio and Blogger offer you the option of hosting your site on servers they manage (Userland.com, Weblogs.com, or Salon.com for Radio; blogspot.com for Blogger) or, alternatively, you can create your blog pages on your own server or any third-party hosting account via FTP. The former option is easier for newbies getting started and for those who do not wish to pay for traditional ISP hosting or manage their own web servers. The latter option gives you more control over the domain name (URL) of your website. For example, this blog’s URL is http://blogs.salon.com/0001111/ but if I used the FTP option instead of accepting the “easy” hosting option, I could easily redirect this entire site to a server bearing any domain name I wished to register (gee, I wonder if blogistan.com free? [I’m deliberately baiting Userland employees now to point out the smart Whois feature that comes with Radio]), and in fact now that I’m mirroring this site via Blogger, this same content can be found at http://memewatch.com/blogistan/ (memewatch.com is a domain name I own).
Design Templates
For writers, nondesigners, and those who do not want to delay their blog while they master the fine art of web design, both Radio and Blogger offer a number of templates to choose from for rendering the look-and-feel of the blogsite. Both make it fairly easy to change templates and both enable customization of the templates, although this requires getting over squeamishness about markup and code, and learning to work with macros and variables. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but it does present a barrier that some will find daunting. There’s a lot more to say about templates that we’ll have to save for a future post. Suffice it to say that both products offer the potential of a great deal of customization and extensibility.
User Interface and Ease of Use
I find the user interface of both products to be reasonably well designed. Radio offers a webby forms-based interfaced and Blogger’s interface employs a fairly slick split-frame interface with button/tab navigation. (Perhaps some screen shots are called for?) At times I find the Blogger interface cumbersome, as when recently I was trying to debug a problem I was having with the archives of my MediaJunkie junkmail blog. Radio’s interface is really a front end to a set of scripts and files that more advanced users feel comfortable plunging into and manipulating directly. There’s a lot to be said for both interfaces, and a lot of sophisticated design and elegant solutions are hidden under their seemingly straightforward presentation in both cases. I think the deciding factor here might be a matter of taste or gut intuition about what seems easier.
One complaint I do have about the Blogger interface is that it doesn’t offer a separate field for blog post titles. I know that not everyone likes to title their posts, but it seems that this should be at least a togglable option, as it is in Radio.
Community and “Culture”
From a mechanical point of view, Radio makes it easy to have your blog ping the sites that track new blog posts and thereby come out and announce yourself to the public. Blogger blogs can also be set up to ping these trackers when updated but it doesn’t seem to be an out-of-the-box functionality. As for the more intangible matter of the blogging “culture” (for lack of a better word), Radio and Blogger definitely project different images. The principals behind Radio and Blogger and all influential in the blog world. They all practice what they preach, eat their own dog food, drank the kool-aid, etc. People don’t talk about an “A List” so much anymore these days but the Blogger/Pyra folks cast a huge shadow when they burst on the scene in the late ’90s.
This caché persists and Blogger is still, as far as I can tell, seen as the “coolest” infrastructure. I’m often surprised at the influential people who use Blogger’s “classic” look-and-feel (the blue banner at top with white Verdana headline, and so on). This is all, of course, subjective, and my own sense of these trends is that more recently MovableType has moved up the charts as the “hippest” blog device, possibly because it is not so easy to install and get started and requires facility with (or at leats fearlessness about) remote sites, web servers, Perl, and so on.
To a large extent these divisions are specious though, and while I do worry about Balkanization of the blog world from the technical perspective, there is no real separation of spheres between Radio and Blogger blogs. (LiveJournal, by contrast, seems largely to exist in a universe of its own). I don’t know anybody who says “I don’t read Radio bloggers,” or “I dislike people who use Blogger,” or anything silly like that.
Documentation and Help
Both products could use better documentation. This, I imagine, is partly a matter of funding, staffing, and priorities. Fortunately, the blog world is full of helpful people who will help you track down the information you need, even if you haven’t RTFM. Radio’s documentation seems fairly scattered. John Robb and Dave Winer and many Radio users have been exceedingly helpful to me this past week in pointing out fascinating documentation and step-by-step guidelines to the various features of and extensions to Radio. Blogger’s help is somewhat sparse but they have recently partnered with a customer-service provider and seem to be taking steps to evolve their help and support processes. These issues touch on the business model/monetization question for both products, which I’ll cover last.
The “Blog This” Shortcut
One huge difference I can see between Radio and Blogger is that Radio lacks the “Blog This” shortcut that made me originally fall in love with Blogger. By dragging a Javascript link onto your browser’s custom toolbar, you give yourself a doo-dad that enables you to grab the link to any site you happen to have browsed to, write up some description, quote part of the page (it will capture whatever you’ve got selected automatically), and instantly publish the new entry to your blog. If you have multiple blogs, you only need one shortcut and you can choose which blog to publish to on the fly. To me, this feature presented a sea change in the whole blogging experience, yet again sweeping away the drudgery of noting a page, cutting and pasting, remembering to do something later, and so on. I understand that such barriers seem trivial, but they are like the few grains of sand in your boots during a long march. That tiny bit of friction adds up and eventually makes you miserable. A big reason why I froze my old webzine around 1998 was that after four years of handcoding web pages, fixing links, evolving the information architecture, and so on I was dying the death of a thousand cuts. The joy wore off and the tedium showed no sign of ever ending.
Because Radio is not browser-based, it has no equivalent Blog This feature. It does, however, offer you the ability to subscribe to syndicated feeds and blog articles and headlines you capture that way easily and with an elegant workflow.
Full-service vs. Blog-centric CMS
A blog tool is a streamlined kind of content management system (CMS), but Radio is more than a blog tool, as it offers an easy way to build an entire static site by dropping text files into a directory hierarchy and allowing the application to stream the new content, merge it with your templates, and build your site. Blogger is chiefly a blog tool. You can customize your templates so that other, static, non-blog content lives there as well, but Blogger does not offer general website-building features. Neither tool makes it especially easy to have serveral blogs or dynamic areas on a single page or in a single template, although mastering the template syntax for either product and either Radio’s scripting language or a technology such as server-side includes (with Blogger) can enable you to build more sophisticated integrated pages.
Business Model
Radio costs $39.95 a year for the software (with the hosting, up to 40 megs, I think) throw into the deal. Blogger is free to use and offers free hosting, but does have a fee-based business model as well, using Blogger Pro, which offers additional features and access to faster, less-encumbered servers. (Blogger has at times suffered from the ravages of success, with scaling issues and huge delays at times in access to its databases.) For many, even the approximately $40 yearly fee for Radio is a barrier to entry when compared to the free-to-start nature of Blogger. Radio does give you a one-month trial period so that you can at least sample the wares (and perhaps get hooked on them) before you pony up the dough.
Stay Tuned
I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface here and that there are many other interesting features of Radio and Blogger that could be compared fruitfully. I eagerly seek corrections to any of my misstatements, additions of key features or distinctions between the products, or any feedback, experiences, or other two cents.