sandboxing

@eksith: there are a whole bunch of sandbox skins at http://sndbx.org, though they’re a couple of years old and might require tweaking to work with the latest version of the theme. I have a few more oldish ones (including sandbox versions of other people’s themes) at http://ntuat.wordpress.com and devblog does them at http://sandboxskins.wordpress.com. If anyone knows any other sources, please let me know.

@Noel: are there any plans to deprecate older versions of Sandbox at any point? On the one hand I am lazy and want to keep my 0.6.1 skins up indefinitely (I like the ability to pick your layout through the admin panel, which later versions lack), but on the other I can see that having four or five versions of the same theme could be confusing for users. Also, could you possibly give us some idea of what has changed/improved between 1.1 and 1.6.1? Is there any added functionality, or is this just a functional upgrade to ensure compatibility with the latest version of WP?

Can anybody explain why this comment is deemed too offensive to appear on the news blog? I have a couple of ideas but none of them seem adequate:

  1. self-promotion. OK, but the fellow commenter was asking for examples of what could be done with sandbox and so I was providing some. I was trying to be helpful. I know, I know, Automattic have made it perfectly clear that they do not want my help, but eksith had made no such stipulation and it’s not really up to Automattic to make that decision on his behalf.
  2. asking of questions. I know we are not meant to ask questions in announcement posts, but nor am I allowed to ask questions on the forum, and frankly it does not seem urgent enough to pester Support with. If you have a major problem with my asking what has been changed and whether older versions will be deprecated, then please say so in your reply, rather than just pretending I never asked. (I don’t know exactly why anyone would have issues with my asking these things, unless of course they didn’t know the answers, in which case there seems little point in asking Support since they won’t know either.)
  3. it is official company policy not to allow any comments by me to appear on the news blog. That would be vaguely flattering but to be honest I don’t think I’m that important. They’re already compromising their professionalism enough by refusing me access to forum support.

This is why I don’t make many Sandbox skins anymore. I don’t mind having new versions sprung upon me with zero notice, but I would like to know how they differ from the one I’ve been working with, to save me and every other person who deals with custom stylesheets from having to examine the code independently and deduce for themselves what the differences are (and if there aren’t any, wow, thank you so much for wasting our time). It would be nice to know whether the older versions will ever be made unselectable for new users, so I know whether it is worth my time converting older skins. I’m providing a service for fellow users here; I don’t want thanks or recognition but a little bit of civility and the occasional smidgeon of help would be nice.

Seriously, I’m this close to taking http://ntuat.wordpress.com down altogether. It can’t be good for my blood pressure to keep banging my head against brick walls like this. I keep thinking of Brian Gardner’s point about the inadvisability of building a business on a platform that is actively hostile towards your aims. Obviously I am not stupid enough to try building a business upon custom CSS, but the same point stands. Automattic have done a superb job of killing any potential market there might have been for custom stylesheets, mainly by dint of drilling support staff and volunteers that users must on no account be advised to purchase the upgrade if they are not already fully-fledged code mavens. Which is odd, since people on blogger and livejournal appear to have no problems applying cut-and-paste templates without such expertise, nor in understanding that any support issues with said templates are best referred to the designer rather than to blogger or livejournal.

No: the real fear here is that people having already spent their $15 on the ability to customise their blog would be willing to hand over even more wonga to a third party willing to do it for them. Automattic are fond of protesting that they welcome people making money off the back of wordpress.org, but you don’t hear them saying they want anyone other than themselves profiting from wordpress.com. If they encouraged people to make and distribute free sandbox skins, sooner or later somebody would produce a ‘premium’ skin, or start offering custom designs, and, since CSS and images are officially not covered by the GPL, Automattic couldn’t stop them from releasing them under whatever licence they chose. I’m the thin end of the wedge. I know that.

OK, I appear to have answered my own question. Comments referring to the existence of third-party sandbox skins cannot be allowed to appear on the official blog, since this would raise awareness of their existence and other people might start making them. Of course, my skins are all impeccably GPL and I have never considered charging a penny for them, but since when has that made a difference? If theme designers are scum, then skin designers — mere parasites upon the greatness that is wp.com! — must be the lowest of the low and extinguished at all costs.

Like I say. I’m this close to giving up on wordpress.com and concentrating on platforms such as livejournal and dreamwidth which actually encourage users to create and share their own stylesheets. Sure, you could read that as exploitation (though no worse than Automattic have done for years with their commandeering of amateur-created themes) but it feels a lot more healthy and constructive to me than the weirdness going on here.

16 Comments »

  1. ray said

    You know how in a shop there is a sign by the till saying “do not allow these people credit/to use cheques”? Well, over the desks of all the staff is a sign in red and bold saying “do not all TGA to comment”. So now you know.

    WRT you moving off WP and on to something else, nooooo. If no one complains about actions taken, Automattic will believe that everything they do is right and then they’ll start messing with people’s blogs because no one will stand up to them. Much better to be outside(-ish) p***ing in, as they say.

    • I’m just not sure there’s any point designing for wordpress.com. The majority of people using the skins seem to be on .org anyway, which makes support a nightmare because naturally they rarely know which version of wordpress and/or sandbox they are on. And there’s hardly a shortage of themes for .org.

      The thing is, it does cost extra time and effort to make a skin wordpress.com-friendly because there are factors you don’t have to consider with .org (related posts, global tags, the navbar, the stats smiley, proprietary widgets etc.). If Automattic are going to persist with the party line that everyone needs to roll their own custom CSS, then that time and effort would be better spent elsewhere. I’m not going to spend hours working for free on something that indirectly profits them (because hello, people can’t use the skins here without paying for the upgrade) when they can’t even meet me halfway. It is getting to the point where, like the forum volunteers, I’m thinking it’s probably unethical to encourage people to invest in a feature that Automattic are so unwilling to support. Why should they profit from it if they can’t be bothered to promote it?

      • ray said

        You raise a new point, indirectly. Since Automattic is a proper grown up business (not that you’d know it, really) is it ethical of them to insist that the “community” work for them for free so they can make profits? By insisting that you don’t sell full skins – and making it impossible for you to do so anyway – it means that only they can make any real money from .com.

        And in terms of .org, since they have effectively flooded the market with free skins – made for free and no pay – they really stop most designers from bothering to design since no one will pay, unless you go down the full monetised theme route.

        Anyway, I find this blog entertaining and informative so I’d rather you don’t stop doing it. Selfish, I know.

  2. sensico said

    There were a couple problems discussed with the new sandbox theme. There was a meta widget issue that’s fixed now. And on pages the comments section doesn’t show, I got an e-mail back saying it should be fixed soon but I couldn’t wait so I switched back to the previous sandbox. I remember stumbling across your blog when I was trying to the hang of CSS. It’d be cool for more sites like yours and devblogs.
    I’m curious in what the response would be on your question to Noel. I doubt even asking that in the forum would get much response from wordpress staff, I asked similar question regarding sandbox 1.1 versus the original sandbox and I didn’t get any answers from staff. But, there seems to not be little difference between sandbox 1.1 and 1.6.1. I only found one selector you can style that you couldn’t style in the version 1.1
    I tried to ask simple one line (harmless) question a couple of wordpress announcements ago and my comment wasn’t approved. I either don’t bother or just give 5 word responses now lol

    • It’d be cool for more sites like yours and devblogs.

      I can’t really see it happening. Who knows, there might be other people out there trying to do the same thing — or pimping ready-made headers, or designing gravatars — but I doubt it. I have a feeling that most creative people would be put off from the get-go by the lack of customisation and the bland selection of themes, and gravitate towards other platforms instead. Hence any effort to market custom stylesheets is probably doomed; if you want something beyond big blue headers, you’re already somewhere else ;)

  3. Heather said

    Hi there. Comments on the news blog are not approved from time to time for a number of reasons, including outgoing links, length, questions more appropriate for support, and replies within the thread. You certainly raise relevant points, though, so I’ve gathered some answers for you:

    – There aren’t currently any plans to deprecate old themes.
    – 1.6.1 is a major code upgrade. More robust, more flexible.

    For more details, you may want to get in touch with Scott of plaintxt.org.

    Cheers.

    • wow, you censor people for replies within the thread? Way to go to kill any semblance of community you might have going there.

      And more robust and flexible? I would kind of expect that from any upgrade, I was really looking for a basic explanation of how and why it’s better from the point of view of end users. As I gathered when Nick replied to my support email, clearly nobody at Automattic knows exactly what changes have been made between 1.1 and 1.6.1 and you’ve just thrown it up so that Matt can boast about having added another theme in his monthly roundup post. (On a sidenote, I think it’s mildly fraudulent to count Sandbox as three separate themes when you’re totting up how many you offer, but hey, marketing people gotta do what marketing people gotta do.)

      I’ve already looked at the changelog, of course, which seems to be primarily moving files around and improving image handling rather than messing around with classes, but that obviously doesn’t include any tweaks you might have made at your end. It used to be considered bad form to refer wordpress.com users to theme designers for support issues, as they have no control over how themes are implemented here.

      • *chuckle* I have to admit that we count Sandbox as 6 themes on our installs. One for each basic layout with the sidebars. But that’s just because I (And appears no one else, at least publicly) never sat down and figured out a method of switching between them from within the theme. :)

  4. The new sandbox was added at the request of some people making custom themes for WP.com. We’re trying to help them out.

    Because Sandbox has not maintained backwards compatibility with new versions we keep the old ones around so we don’t break any CSS-based themes, like yours.

    We have not tweaked Sandbox 1.6.1 – except for enabling it to work with the comment threading features available in 2.7+.

    If you have any theme requests that would make development of CSS-based themes easier for you, let me know. I’m at noel@automattic.com

    • I haven’t kept up-to-date with what’s going on in the world of theme frameworks so I’d be hard-put to propose an alternative to Sandbox; on the whole I’d rather have a simple, semantic framework and sacrifice the occasional bell and whistle (calendar-style post dates, for example, are tricky to accomplish without resorting to graphics) than wrestle with a more complex one that puts spans and divs round absolutely everything. Also, I know my way fairly well around Sandbox by now. If I had to pick an extra framework for wp.com I’d go with Thematic because it’s Sandbox-based, that’s really my only reason. I’m in two minds about frameworks with layout options in the dashboard; it’s great to be able to say to end-users ‘you can have this theme fixed or fluid and with one, two or three columns’, but then I also have to ensure that the skin actually works with every permutation, which is time-consuming and limits my options.

      Actually, the single most helpful thing Automattic could do to help ntuat would be to bring back the ability to upload text files. They are easy enough to filter for hostile code and it’s so much neater and simpler to provide a link than to pile the whole stylesheet into an ugly textarea.

  5. eksith said

    Hi There

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me.
    And Dr. Mike, thank you again for sending me the link to this post.

    @Heather
    I doubt you’ll come back to see this reply, but in the off chance you do…
    There was no way I could have known about this if it weren’t for one of your users using the comment form on my blog to send me a link to this post. My post wasn’t a support question and she didn’t make a support reply. Simply put, the news blog post was incomplete since it left out details on how to actually style the new theme or any links to theme resources. She completed it for us by pointing toward available theme resources.

    My only guess as to why you censor replies to threads is that you want to cull Off-Topic discussions. Fair enough. But killing legitimate replies and keeping a hardlined stance on this gives off the impression that you’re no longer a community oriented service.

    If it weren’t for the WordPress community, your service wouldn’t exist in the first place. Some of your first members were existing WordPress users who used to run their own installations. Let me remind you that it is in very bad form to cut off loyal users with extreme prejudice in the off chance that we might stray from set guidelines.

    We’re not robots. We’re human beings.

    Or is that “Code is Poetry” nonsense just a marketing ploy?

    Thank you for replying here at least, but I hope that comment is approved on the news blog as well.

    • To be fair, wordpress.com has never been a ‘community oriented’ service. It lacks the basic attributes of a community-based site — visible buddy lists, accessible user profiles and group creation — which I think was a deliberate strategy based on the fact that active and engaged user communities are troublesome things to manage, and Automattic did not, when starting up, have anyone on staff with experience of successfully dealing with them. They may eventually implement enough code from Buddypress to make up for these historical weaknesses, but they will always be on their guard against users keeping each other informed about anything vaguely business-related.

      (Also, I don’t think ‘Code is Poetry’ is sophisticated enough to qualify as a marketing ploy. It’s just a meaningless slogan that Matt came up with as a teenager because it sounded kind of cool.)

  6. emre said

    The only way you’ll see other Premium Theme sellers follow in Brian’s footsteps is if his decision adversely affects their revenue.

    As long as themes are selling, why make them free?

    Whether or not Brian’s decision will affect other theme sales is yet to be seen.

  7. dovefight said

    Hi there, I see you talk about lack of documentation for Sandbox upgrades… my problem is lack of documentation for the Sandbox theme itself. I know how to write CSS, but I need a reference source on the identifiers and classes used by Sandbox for all design elements (like #primary and #secondary, for example, but there must be a lot more). Since sandbox is aimed at CSS web designers, I would expect such a reference to be easily available…? Thanks!

  8. dovefight said

    I just found the same question answered at http://en.forums.wordpress.com/topic/getting-started-with-custom-css/page/2

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s