05:05 AM

Bubbler blows up distinctions between websites and blogs

bubbler.gifI'm often asked how a blog differs from a website. I usually say that blogs are websites that are organized like journals, generally created with software that lets you make frequent posts and supports things like reader comments and trackbacks, which aren't typically found on business sites. Blogging connotes a lot of other things, of course, like strong opinions, brutal honesty, and an ongoing conversation. SiliconValleyWatcher, for instance, uses Movable Type even though it is organized more like a news website than a traditional blog.

Bubbler, a new service from Palo Alto-based startup Five Across, really blurs that distinction in interesting ways. Founded by graduates of Apple and Adobe, Bubbler is a database-driven service that lets creators toggle between blog and website conventions, does away with ftp'ing files to a server, and even removes the concept of a broken link (except for outside links).

When I talked to Five Across CEO Glenn Reid, he emphasized that divorcing content from presentation was the key to the company’s technology. That’s been an objective of Web technologies for many years now, especially Cascading Style Sheets. But having a goal is one thing and having a system that actually works seamlessly is quite another.

Glenn comes from Apple, and Bubbler’s model is pretty Apple-like. It uses standards like CSS and JavaScript as appropriate, but at the core is proprietary technology that enables the company to deliver a solid user experience. There's no part of the process that Five Across isn't touching - you use its client software and its servers. Bubbler sites run on Five Across servers. While the service sits on TCP/IP and outputs HTML/CSS/JavaScript to a web server, everything in the middle is proprietary Five Across stuff.

This approach is not unusual. Flickr, for instance, takes a closed source, open API approach. How they do what they do is secret; what is open is the method of writing apps that lock into it. Bubbler is also closed-source, and it's not clear how open the APIs will be. It’s hard to argue with the success of the iPod and its tight integration with iTunes. On the other hand, its hard to argue with the success of the Web. But, why argue? There is obviously room for both kinds of companies.

Although Bubbler is intially offered as a hosted service, Five Across' ultimate business model, unlike that of Movable Type creator Six Apart, isn’t to run a hosting service but provide an OEM technology to other companies and networks. Look for ISPs to offer Bubbler to customers as a blog- or web-building tool that blows away anything they currently offer. And look for Bubbler to cut deals with institutions in vertical markets, such as real estate.

Blog or site? The difference is a template

Like Blogger.com, Bubbler offers a bunch of CSS-based templates. But unlike Blogger and other blog tools, the templates don't all look like blogs. Enterprise and small business templates look a lot more like website than blogs. Because Bubbler lets you disable blog standards like date, author, comments, trackbacks and so on, your “postings” can easily look like web “content.” Bubbler makes it easy to upload photos and files - just drag from the desktop to the app.

To put Bubbler through its paces, I took a site operated by my sister in law, Working Aussie Source, and re-created the home page in

Bubbler. I think she’s an interesting and typical case study. She paid someone to build her site but it’s become gainly and out of control. Not knowing any HTML, she’s been unable to update it and certainly unable to redesign it. Using a basic template, I recreated her home page in about an hour. But that took some faking up of blog entries, and I wasn’t able to replicate her basic design. Here's my Bubbler version of Working Aussie Source.

bubb-ss.jpgTo move past the templates (shown in the screen shot), you have to dive into CSS. Clicking on Customize Template simply opens an HTML file for you to edit and upload to Bubbler. There’s no ftp app to run though; Bubbler handles the uploads. Editing the CSS isn’t that hard unless you’re building elements from scratch - moving elements around is fairly easy. Still, I don’t think that matters much. The creator of Working Aussie Source is not going there - she’ll need a wysiwyg editor for rearranging page elements or many more templates to choose from. Even TypePad, which is no wonder of user interface, allows users to control the positions of different elements and makes it relatively easy to paste in code for AdSense and other JavaScript do-hickies.

Five Across PR told me that the company's low-end market - real estate agents, photographers - would be happy to use templates, especially since Bubbler lets you use your own images in the templates. But I think this is leaving a lot of potential customers on the table. Designers, for instance, insist on total visual control but have no love of maintaining sites, tracking down broken links and threading through JavaScript rollover code. They would be very happy with the amazing way Bubbler makes those issues go away. If Bubbler can combine design control and ease of use, it could become a very interesting product. It will never be for everyone, but it is an exciting breakthrough in web authoring.