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Old 08-24-2006, 03:45 AM
Jason Dunn
Executive Editor
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Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 29,160
Default Thoughts Media Forums: The Long Term Plan

When I started Pocket PC Thoughts in October 2000, it was a hobby blog born out of my passion to have a place to discuss everything about Pocket PCs. The first version was advertising-free, and paid for out of my pocket. I never would have envisioned that, six years later, I'd have four Web sites, a wonderful team of volunteer editors, moderators, and review team members just as passionate about their respective topics as I am, and be blessed with the ability to do this as my full-time job. Six years is a long time to amass experiences along the way, and to learn from them to make things better for the future.

Here's the short version if you're in a rush: by the end of the year, the Digital Media Thoughts forums will be merged into a new centralized set of vBulletin forums shared with other Thoughts Media sites. Go to the new "shell" our forums will be placed in and register using the same username and password you have here on this site (that's really important).

Here's the long version if you want to understand why the above decision was made: it's always been frustrating for me that the Thoughts Media Network has four different set of forums, requiring users to have four separate sets of username/password credentials. That's just plain stupid, and not something I ever intentionally set out to do. When we started the first set of forums on Pocket PC Thoughts, I knew nothing about online forum software. The helpful tech guy helping me out recommended phpBB, and at the time it seemed like a good idea so I didn't research any alternatives. The software was free, updated often, and would work with the custom front-page news system we created. When I launched Smartphone Thoughts, I realized having two sets of forums wasn't ideal, but with phpBB being unable to properly support sub-forums, it seemed like an even worse idea to try and combine everything together into one huge list of forums. Lastly, my content management system was designed to work with phpBB, so switching would require a complete re-design.

When Digital Media Thoughts was launched later on, the problem was only getting worse, and there was the added concern of privacy issues involving data replication of the user database across three sites (which was one solution to not forcing users to have three separate logins). All in all, it was a mess. To make matters worse, the phpBB release schedule slowed to a crawl - bug fixes were all they were putting out. The often-promised phpBB content management system was nowhere to be found, one of the main developers left the project, and as a free product there was no tech support or even anyone to turn to when spammers flooded our board. Because our CMS was essentially a phpBB hack, every time a new version of phpBB came out, upgrading the software was painful and slow.

See where this is going? Late last year, in discussions with all team members and my lead developer/designer Fabrizio Fiandanese, I decided to move away from phpBB. I investigated several forum solutions, and decided upon vBulletin for several reasons: some of the biggest sites out there were using it, and all seemed quite snappy and responsive despite their huge size. vBulletin is a commercial product with a yearly fee, which means I'd have access to real support. They update the product regularly, adding new features and security measures. The forum software itself wasn't quite as simple to use as phpBB, but much of that is because their default template isn't terribly good.

Picking the forum software was only half the solution though: we had an entire content management system to re-write from scratch, and in order to not get trapped by this problem again, our CMS would have to be written in such a way that it was completely separate from the forum software. It would have to "float" above the forum layer, injecting the post into the forum at the right time. By keeping it separate, it would also allow us to avoid the snares of problematic software updates. So over the past year, Fabrizio and I (well, ok, Fabrizio did all the coding :-D) have been working on this new CMS. We have five years of built-up functionality to replicate and improve upon, so to say that it's a big project is a huge understatement.

There are many advantages to the forum merger: with a single login to the Thoughts Media Network, community members will be able to comment on any story, on any site, without having to log in again. This will have the net result of increasing community posts across the network. It also allows editors to easily post a single story to multiple sites, and centralizes community commentary on those posts. Another advantage: subscriber services (once ported over to the new CMS) will be network-wide, meaning you'll pay once and have access to special services and offers on all four sites. It will take us a while to get implemented, but it's definitely a goal.

It's important for me to stress that this move is about combining the forums and not the communities themselves. Each site has it's own distinct community, and I don't want to take that away. vBulletin makes it simple for someone to not even have to see the other forums. For instance, on the Zune Thoughts home page (yes, we soft-launched today), when you click on the FORUMS link, you are taken right into the Zune Thoughts Forum which is skinned to match the site. There's no need to even see the other forum sections. We'll have a centralized Off Topic forum for all the sites, which saves me from having to post the same thing four times. ;-)

There's one disadvantage that I haven't figured out a way around yet: when a user clicks "View New Posts" in the forums, it will show them all of the new posts in the forums, not just the sub-forum they are in. So someone that only reads Pocket PC Thoughts will see new posts from the Smartphone Thoughts forums as well. One possible solution here is to find a way to colour-code or filter the results window, making it easy to quickly scan for the forum posts that interest you. When weighed against all of the advantages, I believe this issue is relatively minor, but I am aware of it.

This is a big change, and while I expect some grumbling (few people endorse change) I hope this post explains how and why this decision was made. I value each and every member of this community very highly, and my goal is always to deliver the best possible community experience possible. I believe this move will, in the end, position Thoughts Media and all its communities for future growth and success. I will follow this post up with a short FAQ that will hopefully answer most questions you may have, but feel free to ask about anything I didn't cover.
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