Ghost, the Latest WordPress Alternative, is Finally Here

Early last November, designer and writer John O’Nolan published his idea of a lighter WordPress fork focused on writing: Ghost. The original concept page showed a beautifully redesigned dashboard that focused on the stats and info that matter to writers, combined with a post editor that let you write in Markdown and preview the live post at the same time. The concept took the web by storm, racking up hundreds of comments on Hacker News and beyond — and even drawing interest from WordPress’ creator, Matt Mullenweg.

Nearly 11 months and a wildly successful Kickstarter later, and backers finally have the first beta of Ghost to power their blogs. It’s a Node.js and SQLite powered CMS that’s been coded from scratch instead of the original idea of a WordPress fork, and it’s already a totally different blogging experience than anything you’ve ever used. It’s attracted thousands of individual backers, as well as corporate sponsors from Envato and Code School all the way to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (of all surprising things). It’s easily the most exciting thing in blogging right now.

Replacing WordPress

WordPress isn't aging so gracefully

WordPress isn’t aging so gracefully

WordPress is just over a decade old. In that time, it’s gone from an basic blogging platform to a full-fledged CMS that can run everything from eCommerce stores to multiple-site networks of blogs. It can still be used for individual blogs, of course, but it’s far from a simple place to blog these days. And creating your own theme? Even if you know some HTML and CSS, you’ll need to dive into its complex API to figure out how to get everything to work.

And so, over the past few years, WordPress has gone from the cool new toy to the frustrating lumbering beast that makes you want to try something fresh and new. It still works, but it sure feels like there should be something simpler. That’s prompted developers to create plethora of alternates, from SVBTLE’s extremely simple (and invite only) markdown powered blogging to new writing platforms like Medium that let you write without having to make a blog. For the geekier among us, flat-file CMSes are all the rage, from the basic Dropbox-powered Scriptogram to (my personal favorite) Kirby to the even geekier Octopress.

Now, there’s Ghost to enter the fray. It’s bringing a much more WordPress-style set of features to the table, with a database-powered site, support for multiple users, social media integration, and more built into open-source software that anyone can run. But, it’s also far simpler to use than WordPress, with only the most necessary options and settings, and Handlebar.js-powered themes that are far easier to tweak and design from scratch than WordPress themes. It’s a promise of a great new beginnings for a blog engine that could be great for everything from large blog networks with dozens of contributors to your next vacation picture blog.

Power Comes at a Price

Simple on the outside, a bit more complex on the inside

Simple on the outside, a bit more complex on the inside

But first, you’ll have to get Ghost running, and that’s a bit more of an undertaking than you’d encounter with many of the newest flat-file blogging engines. You’ll need a VPS or an app hosting environment such as Heroku, Amazon S3, and Microsoft Azure that’ll run Node.js — shared hosting won’t cut it anymore. Once you’ve got Node.js installed and running, you need to download and install Ghost, which will make sure everything else it needs (including SQLite) is installed. And here’s the cool thing: Ghost is served through Node.js directly, so you literally only need to install Node.js and then Ghost on a base Linux server to get your site up, no Apache or Ngix required.

That’s not too hard if you know your way around the terminal, and there’s even detailed guides for installing Ghost on a wide variety of hosting platforms and a detailed guide for getting a Ubuntu VPS running Ghost, Ngix, and more securely. I’m not a Linux guru by any means, and I got Ghost running (albeit likely not as securely as it should be) on a new DigitalOcean VPS in 15 minutes or so (which at $5/month on the low end is easily competitive price-wise with shared hosting). But that’s still far more involved than the average basic WordPress install, which can be installed in as little as 1 click from most hosting companies, no terminal required.

Ghost doesn’t intend to be just a self-hosted CMS, though. Just like its older inspiration, WordPress, Ghost intends to have open-source software you can run on your own site and a hosted version that’ll be dead-simple to run without having your own hosting, one that will generate revenue for the platform at the same time. And, just like with WordPress, we’d expect to see more hosting options for it coming in the near future — in fact, Host Ghost, a 3rd party hosting option for Ghost, has already beta launched.

It’s not that Ghost is so difficult to run on your own — it’s actually easier than installing WordPress if you’re starting from a bare-bones server. It’s just that WordPress has been around for so long, a whole ecosystem of tools has evolved to make WordPress simpler to install. Plus, most flat-file blogs are simpler in some ways, at least on the server-side. Ghost is just a reminder that shared hosting isn’t enough anymore, and hosting a modern CMS takes a bit more than flat-file site hosting. That much shouldn’t be so surprising.

Markdown Blogging Bliss

Markdown writing bliss

Simply Markdown

Once you’ve got Ghost up and running, it’s simple to get everything else done. The dashboard isn’t completed yet, but the visual article picker and writing view is ready and works great already. You can see each article you’ve published with a full preview in your browser, then jump in and edit the post in Markdown with your changes previewed on the right. Changing tags, published date, and even the article slug is just as simple, without the on-screen clutter of WordPress.

Ghost’s editor is very similar to the popular Mou Markdown editor for the Mac, showing your Markdown writing on the left column and a preview of your rendered post in the right. It’s got some nice touches, including keyboard shortcuts for common functions (say, CMD+I for italics), and a neat image uploader integration that lets you put the markdown placeholder in your image text and then upload the image from the rich view later. Need more than Markdown? No problem — HTML code works just fine, too. There’s really only two things missing for me: an option to hide the preview column for focused writing and a setting to schedule articles for a particular time, both of which I hope will come in the future.

For all the niceness of Markdown-focused writing, though, there’s yet another obstacle for Ghost to overcome: everyone doesn’t know Markdown. Anyone who’s used to writing for the web today should be at least somewhat familiar with Markdown, seeing as it’s being used in everything from blog platforms to the new writing collaboration apps like Editorially these days. So instead of this being an issue Ghost needs to resolve, it’s a reminder that Markdown is the most important markup language of our day, one I happen to think schools should be teaching to kids along with normal typing classes.

For the Future

It takes more than a nice writing environment to make a competitive CMS, though. You’ll need themes and plugins, and import and export tools to let users bring in their data and feel secure they can take it elsewhere in the future. The latter two should be coming soon, if placeholder folders in the Ghost code hold any weight. And the former already have a solid headstart, with a number of themes already available for Ghost today. There’s the built-in Casper theme that looks rather similar to Roon.io’s theme, complimented by a number of Ghost themes on the Ghost Marketplace including several ready to buy today from Polygonix, a new Ghost theme company. Going forward, there should be a lot more, even on our parent company’s marketplace ThemeForest since Envato is a Ghost launch partner. And making your own theme shouldn’t prove too daunting, either — you can take apart the existing theme and tweak it rather easily already.

But then, to upset WordPress’ dominance, you’re going to need a lot more than that. Otherwise, WordPress would have never become the juggernaut it is today. Today’s beta release is only the first step there. Next up will be the public beta, hopefully with the appearance of the beautifully info-rich dashboard and multiuser features that’ll make it worth using over its more basic competitors. And once the hosted version is ready for use, I have the feeling that Ghost is what we’ll all be recommending our friends use to open new blogs.

At any rate, the timing sure seems perfect for an open-source Markdown-powered CMS with a hosted monetization plan, one that’s powerful enough to actually replace WordPress for all blogging uses. We can’t wait to see how it continues to grow.


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