Why I turned my back on Simple Machines (and phpBB)

I grew up with bulletin boards. Online forums, message boards, however you want to call them, have for almost decades defined how discussion on the internet took place. Then came social networks and they were all deserted. Long standing communities, fostered over years, turned into ghost towns in mere months. Facebook & Co were easier to use, had a way lower barrier to entry and that is where things were happening anyway. At the same time, places like Reddit, Stack Exchange and other technical places changed the way how tech support works online.

For many years I have managed message boards, starting with YaBB (or similar), then later also tried phpBB which in some areas is still the market leader among the freely available, open source systems. Simple Machines has a very good track record, as it has proved over the years to be a quite flexible and stable system. Now this is 2015, a lot of online communities are still dead as disco, and even though one can detect trends that signal movements away from the public social networks back to niche communities, the situation is still tricky. Luring people back with carrots and sticks is tough. One element of any community manager’s strategy to rebuild a community, or revive a dormant one, would be to offer its members the usability, convenience and feature set they are used to from modern day websites. This is where a host of new online discussion software platforms come in.

Discourse, NodeBB and a few others have said bye bye to the LAMP stack and built online discussion forums as Java and/or Ruby-Rails applications. As proper applications – versus simple PHP scripts – they enormously limit the number of hosting environments they can run on and increase the barrier to entry a hundredfold. They are however very new, innovative and the situation is improving almost monthly, with hosted offerings popping up, and hosting providers offering one-click installations. Their maturity itself is also increasing. Discourse is already at 1.4 and used by an impressive array of communities. Because they are resource hungry, they might however never really be running on the old, shared hosting environments which have sufficed for phpBB, Simple Machines and the like.

Firstly, I have opted for Discourse. It has an active community, some decent strategic partners (like DigitalOcean, etc.) and is rather easy to use. Its discussion concept makes sense and the functionality is up to the standards I would expect from something that is built for the internet in 2015. The hardware requirements are alright, and with Discoursehosting.com I have also found a capable and affordable way to have one hosted instead of having to administer a Docker based server installation on my own (although the Docker stuff is getting really easy, a caveman could probably do it). I follow the debates on discourse.org and  have to say I am rather impressed by the evangelism put forth by this community and the frequency of releases most of all.

Secondly, there are three main reasons why I am turning my back on Simple Machines (and also phpBB). The first reason is that it sometimes takes years for major releases. Simple Machines has been working forever on a major new version, and even though from the beta I have seen I am sure it will bring back SMF to kind of the post-2000 internet, I think the effort comes a bit late (and they won’t say when that will be). It has thus become an unreliable software vendor, and a very un-innovative one at that. The second reason is the old mindset. I have found that its community and creators tend to be of the „if it ain’t broke, why fix it“ sort, I was surprised how conservative a crowd it turned into. Even mentioning their newer competitors triggers arrogant defense reactions. All the more reason to say bye to the past and hello to the future. The third reason is that as established software platforms, they have become unable to manage the feature direction of their extension ecosystems on the one hand, and are prominent spam and security targets on the other. As they are rather old architectures, they struggle to be mobile friendly, responsive, and usable.

This may sound very bitter, but for someone who has been relying on a certain kind of technology over many years and seeing those technologies fail to innovate and move forward, I think it has come time for me to sever ties and jump ship. I like to offer my communities a technical foundation that is mobile friendly, performant, intuitive, optimized and packing a feature set out of the box that makes them feel at home in a 2015 kind of environment. Discourse is under active early development but it is already way ahead of their legacy uncles and aunts in the online forum world, and I hope and I am confident that my communities will happily adapt to their novelty and be happy with the innovation it brings. To the Simple Machines and phpBB community out there, maybe take a few steps back and look at the big picture: incremental fixings on software concepts that are already more 90s than the Windows Start button, will not help….

If you want to give it a try, you can sign up for DiscourseHosting.com, using my affiliate link, thanks!


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