Tumbling Toward Freemium

Tumblr is a microblogging service (which I first covered about two years ago). It’s recently become freemium: the basic service remains free of charge; there is a cost for premium features.

I’m very interested the freemium model and how it is implemented. So are others, if the excellent discussion on my recent post on freemium at WordPress.com is anything to go by.

Posts on Tumblr premium themes at Mashable and at TechCrunch are positive. Comments following each of those posts is more mixed, with some indicating a preference for rival microblogging service Posterous.

At Tumblr’s own site, there was of course a blog post about the new themes. “They cost between $9 and $49 (most of which goes right into the pockets of the brilliant designers behind them).” Some theme designers also posted about their new premium Tumblr themes (e.g., WooThemes).

I think that the price is for use of a theme at Tumblr forever (but someone please correct me if it’s on some other basis, such as annual). The Tumblr theme garden now includes a premium plot.

I looked for the Tumblr support forum to gauge the reaction of the Tumblr community. I couldn’t find one, so I looked in the FAQ. No mention there. To my surprise, no mention either of the ad policy, since that’s one of the perennially hot topics at WordPress.com.

I filled out the email support form with my questions. Email support is impressively prominent at the Tumblr site, and the response was equally impressive in terms of speed and of actually answering my questions. There is no official support forum. AdSense is allowed, with a couple of caveats.

In closing, I’ll throw out a more general thought about freemium: or rather, I’ll post it, hope for comments on it, then do some more thinking. There are two types of freemium service.

  1. Here’s a free service. By the way, here are some premium features you can pay for and use if you want.
  2. Here’s a service. You pay to use it. But here’s a very limited version, so that you can try it out for free.

Most freemium services are of the first type. Of firms providing the second type of freemium service, the most prominent is 37signals.

I welcome your comments on this post, on the freemium model, and on how it is used at Tumblr and elsewhere.

Popular Themes at WordPress.com

Which WordPress themes are most widely used? That question is broad and difficult to answer. Luckily, there are related questions that are more focused and easier to answer. For example: which themes are most popular at WordPress.com? which have the most downloads from WordPress.org?

This post is about the answer to the first of these more specific questions. If I, as an admin of this or any other WordPress.com blog, browse themes I can request that the themes be ordered by popularity.

This is the current list of most popular themes at WordPress.com: ChaoticSoul, MistyLook, Ocean Mist, Cutline, Freshy, Black-LetterHead, Contempt, Ambiru, Digg 3 Column, Benevolence, Tarski, Andreas04, Solipsus, Blix, Rounded, and PressRow.

The first thing that struck me was the absence of Kubrick, which has been the default theme for new WordPress blogs for a while now. I suspect that there are indeed many Kubrick blogs, created but never really used, that the popularity algorithm excludes. I’ll add that Contempt is a close relative of Kubrick.

Second, it looks as though the typical popular theme has a custom header, and a sidebar on the right.

Third, only 3 or these 16 themes – Black-LetterHead, Tarski, and Blix – are currently in the free themes directory at WordPress.org. That’s unfortunate, since it’s particularly easy to install a theme from that directory at a self-hosted WordPress blog: you don’t need to leave the dashboard to use FTP.

I started looking into the initial question (Which WordPress themes are most widely used?) when I realized that using Typekit with WordPress is very theme-specific.

WordPress Themes, Mobile and Otherwise

The theme of a WordPress blog is like its skin, its graphical interface… So the theme is part of the blog’s identity.

Should that identity be preserved across platforms, even when some of the platforms are mobile? A recent post suggests that it typically isn’t. WordPress.com’s mobile default is a mobile theme, rather than a mobile version of the blog’s “main” theme.

For self-hosted WordPress, there are several plugins available. The most popular seem based on the rule: if mobile platform, then mobile theme.

There are some aspects of theme design that don’t translate well to mobile. For example, the theme for this blog shows a lot of white space. That doesn’t work on mobile, when there isn’t much space to spare.

On the other hand, colors do work on mobile. The WordPress.com CSS upgrade doesn’t let me tweak the color scheme of the mobile themes. I wish it did.

For self-hosted blogs, it might be good practice to have a little CSS file that specifies colors, and other aspects of themes that carry over well to mobile, and invoke that file from every theme the blog uses.

I’m sure someone has written a good, thoughtful account of aspects of theme design, and the extent to which each aspect should be similar or different between mobile and other themes. If you know of it, please leave a link in the comments.

Mobile Themes For WordPress

If you’re reading this on a mobile phone, you won’t be seeing this blog’s Simpla Way theme. That’s because WordPress.com automatically uses a mobile theme when displaying blogs on a mobile device.

What about self-hosted WordPress? I went over to the WordPress.org theme directory, searched for mobile, and was shown just one theme: Carrington Mobile. The thing is, a mobile theme isn’t much good without code to select it when appropriate.

So the mobile hotspot for WordPress is plugins, not themes. Of the many plugins tagged with mobile, here are those relevant to mobile themes (with at least a thousand downloads).

  • WPtouch iPhone Theme (299,390 downloads) “transforms your WordPress blog into an iPhone application-style theme… when viewed from an iPhone, iPod touch, Android or BlackBerry touch mobile device.” This theme in plugin’s clothing is used (with modifications) by WordPress.com for such devices.
  • WordPress Mobile Edition (100,296) seems similar, and is used (with modifications) by WordPress.com for mobile devices other than those on the WPTouch list.
  • MobilePress (38,818) allows device- or browser-specific themes, and allows development of custom mobile themes.
  • WordPress Mobile Pack (18,108) includes a selection of mobile themes.
  • Wapple Architect Mobile (6,186) sounds interestingly different. “Other mobile plugins for WordPress use a default mobile style… Wapple… retains the styling of your site from web to mobile.”
  • MoFuse (4,074) allows creation of, and redirect to, a mobile version of the blog.
  • Mobilize by Mippin (3,425) is similar to MoFuse in that it involves a mobile version of the blog.

My most mobile-focused blog, Android Icon, currently uses WordPress Mobile Edition. I plan to use that blog for a grapple with Wapple, and maybe a try of some of the other plugins listed above, soon.

Theme Thoughts

I’ve been looking through WordPress themes recently to power a startup. Since I’m using self-hosted WordPress, rather than WordPress.com (which is where this blog is hosted), the number of available themes is well into four figures. As usual, I was looking for a clean theme. I had some additional criteria.

The main thing that struck me was the clumsiness of the search tools available. Of course, it might just be that I’m bad at searching for search tools. But at a time when semantic search is all the rage, it should be possible to express preferences and get a few good results amidst a domain of only a thousand or two entities.

Long story short, I ended up with Orange Techno from the German firm AOE media. AOE has made several themes available to the WordPress community under the GPL, and I like their “clean but with a personality” approach to theme design.

So, the theme for Wijard is a tweaked Orange Techno. And I’m still looking for an extremely clean, but not annoying, theme for the companion blog.