Shoes for the cobbler’s children

Shoe Icon
Shoe Icon (created in Art Studio on the iPad, from a pencil sketch photographed using my iPhone)

For a while now I’ve been using a simple PHP script to publish my working notes for the stuff I do at the University of Alabama. Essentially, I have a folder full of text files (using markdown syntax) and it simply lists what’s there, uses markdown.php to render it, and voila. I imagine it’s not dissimilar conceptually from the way Gruber manages daringfireball, but I’m sure his setup is much more sophisticated and does caching, etc. Since I have about five users, there’s no need to get more elaborate.

Anyway, I submitted Manta to the App Store in the wee hours of Monday morning and thought I’d better put some kind of website up for the game at the URLs I provided as part of the submission process. You know, the reviewer might actually check. I threw some stuff on the server and then quickly realized that making something that looked good on all the target platforms I cared about (i.e. Mac, Windows, iPhone, and iPad) might be pretty tricky in a short timeframe. After all, my main website has been kind of sucking on the iPhone for some time.

I figured I’d use a “simple toy” to get a site up real quick, and worry about proper content-management, etc., later. (In other words, probably never.) My first stop was WordPress. Surely there are some awesome themes out there that look good on everything. I love WordPress for managing simple sites and this was going to be pretty darn simple.

Well, if there’s such a theme, I couldn’t find it. The one theme I found that claimed to be iPad-friendly (a) wasn’t, and (b) was decidedly not free.

My next stop was Rapidweaver. I licensed Sandvox a long, long time ago back when I needed to get a different website up-and-running fast. I’ve followed Sandvox for a long time and it continues to suck in almost every way I care about but — at the time — I preferred it over Rapidweaver because it was kind of WYSIWYG and had some power-user features I thought might be useful (but really weren’t). Rapidweaver had themes that were claimed to be iPhone- and iPad-friendly (but weren’t — in fact even the demo sites were badly borked) and managed to produce pages with videos that couldn’t play and other embarrassing glitches (e.g. failing to correctly update the site after changing a page name, and pretty much broken SFTP support). Good grief.

OK, in desperation I tried Sandvox. Oddly enough, even though Sandvox seems very clunky beside Rapidweaver, and even though Karelia seems to go out of its way to ignore third-party theme developers (e.g. there are no links to them on its website), there are some very nice third-party themes for Sandvox (I didn’t buy them, but they looked pretty nice in my browser). Even so, Sandbox infuriates me and also produced broken pages.

I even tried iWeb ’09. Actually, of the three, iWeb seemed to produce the least dysfunctional site, but its pages are heavy, it didn’t do a good job with videos (they did play, at least), and it has a terrible collection of themes and very little third-party support (I think it’s safe to say iWeb is a total failure as a product). It certainly makes no effort to produce iOS-friendly pages, which says a good deal. And producing a simple gallery page is a chore unless you set up the gallery in iPhoto first. No thank you.

Back to Coda.

So, here’s the solution I came up with. I took the basic idea of my markdown-driven “work blog” site and combined it with some ideas I have been using for a very long time here and there, which essentially involve using file-naming and directory structures to connote relationships between content. A little bit of glue code in PHP, two PHP library files I use for all kinds of things, one CSS file, jQuery.js and markdown.php, and a simple .htaccess hack, and voila: instant website. Just shove files in the right format using a simple naming convention in a pretty pattern on a server and it all just works. It’s very much a work in progress, and there are some obvious refinements I can add, but it’s shaping up to be a simpler and more flexible way to quickly build an attractive (and highly customizable) website than Rapidweaver, Sandvox, or iWeb. And with some kind of Web App for online management it might even be simpler than WordPress or Tumblr.

Afterthought

The one “super simple” solution I didn’t try was mobileme. Of course the idea of paying Apple $99/year in perpetuity for a tiny amount of cloud storage on a server that won’t let me run my favorite scripting languages somehow doesn’t appeal to me. I also tried looking at some sites on mobileme.com and if there’s a way to quickly generate attractive, compatible sites using it, no-one seems to be using it.