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Don't like FUDforum? Give phpBB a try
As with other software categories, there's no shortage of open-source forum packages.

(LinuxWorld) — Ever buy something and then spend the next few weeks researching other products to see if something better was out there? In real life, that's called neurosis. To a product reviewer, it's called a job. I did my job this week by looking for some BBS or forum software that might be better than FUDforum 2.3, the software I chose to use for my non-profit Web sites. (I wrote about version 2.3.2 in my last article, but the latest version of FUDforum is now 2.3.3, which includes several minor bug fixes.)

I placed only a few conditions on the prospective software: it had to be available under the GPL or some similar license, and it had to use Apache, PHP4, and MySQL. The reason for these requirements should be intuitive. The GPL is the creme-de-la-creme of open source licenses, and Apache, PHP4 and MySQL is the most popular combination for Web applications support.

I surf up Freshmeat with the appropriate search terms to see what's out there. The first alternative to FUDforum that caught my eye was Open Bulletin Board. It doesn't seem to have as many features as FUDforum, but the forum at the Web site looks very attractive. It seems blazingly fast. I don't know if the speed is due to the server, the size of the pipe it has to the Internet, the software, or some combination. The site for Open Bulletin Board boasts about its speed, and so do people who have adopted this package. I have to assume the software itself is fast.

I can't find out for sure at this point, because I can't seem to get a corruption-free download of the software. I downloaded both the tarball and the ZIP file several times, and all my decompression utilities complain that they're not recognized as valid compressed files. Perhaps it would work if I used a Windows utility instead of Linux. In that case, I'll never find out.

I confess that I did not do due diligence and report the problem, but I have a motive for that. The discussions at the site make it clear that Open Bulletin Board has a limited future. One or more developers have started a new full-featured project called Discursion, and Open Bulletin Board looks like it will be the "lite" forum software offering after that. I have a hard time getting excited about any software that is going to be "end-of-lifed" soon.

You know that term, right? Here's the definition from the M-W Dictionary. No, that's not Merriam-Webster, it's Marketing Whorespeak.

    Main Entry: 1 end-of-life
    Function: verb
    Etymology: Middle Marketing, perhaps from Market Droidian, late 20th century
  1. a : to deprive of future shelf life while avoiding an adverse reaction from current customer base
    b (1) : to slaughter shamelessly without notice (2) : to convert a software product into obsolescence by slaughtering
  2. : to put an end to a product nobody wants without admitting it (see competition)
  3. : to stop the life of the target, as in "give me all your money or I'll end-of-life you!"
  4. : hyperbole as in, "I could end-of-life for a slice of pepperoni pizza right now."
  5. : EXECUTE stresses putting product to death by virtue of avoiding the term "kill" (executed by lethal marketing gas)

To phpBB2 or not to phpBB2

I figured I'd look at another alternative while waiting for Discursion to enter beta testing. A reader suggested I have a look at phpBB. So I did. I downloaded the latest tarball and splattered it out onto my drive. Unlike FUDforum, phpBB2 comes as several files. If you don't have shell access to your target server, you'll have to transfer all of them. There are some good FTP programs out there which will make it easy, so it's no big deal. However, I still prefer the FUDforum approach of putting everything you need into a single install.php file.

Like FUDforum, you install phpBB by pointing your browser to its install.php file. From there, installation is even easier than FUDforum, if that's possible. You fill out one page of information such as the name of the database, prefix for tables, database user name, administrator account, and a few more details. You click a button, and you're ready to start managing the forums.

phpBB has a subset of the features you'll find in FUDforum. It has its own pseudo-HTML language called BBCode, which makes it easy to format your posts without having to know HTML. It also has a handful of buttons to automate some of the BBCode, such as lists, text size, font color, and more. You can click on smiley icons (emoticons) and it will insert the appropriate marker for you. You can quote the previous message in your reply or just start with a blank reply. There doesn't seem to be any support at all for avatars. Avatars are fun but frivolous, so I wouldn't count that against phpBB unless you're a fanatic about having your favorite cartoon face appear with each of your posts.

The layout is attractive, but I often found it unintuitive. For example, my brain seems to think a quoted reply and a blank reply are almost identical operations, so I would expect to find those two buttons right next to each other. That's how it works by default in FUDforum. However, phpBB places the quote button at the upper right of every message, and the reply button at the top and bottom of the page. Go figure.

phpBB has a private messaging, but it doesn't seem to include the ability for users to create buddy lists. It has something called user groups. You define a group, assign a moderator, and then add users to that group. I assume this feature is meant to allow an administrator to confine certain groups of participants to certain discussions. I can see where this feature might be useful for certain organizations that want to run forums but want strict control over the participants and posted content. Nevertheless, it doesn't jump out at me as a particularly useful feature for most applications of forum use.

The administration interface is quite nice. phpBB is certainly much easier to customize in terms of look and feel than FUDforum. However, that's partly because you don't have the broad range of options for customization in phpBB. This will be a relief to those who aren't interested in learning how to twiddle with cosmetic details but want to run a form that doesn't just look like the default phpBB color and icon set.

The bottom line for phpBB is that, as a limited forum package, is quite good. It's snappy, has all of the necessary features for a basic forum, and it's incredibly easy to set up and manage. I still prefer FUDforum, but if for some reason you consider FUDforum to be overkill, check out phpBB.

About Nicholas Petreley
Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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