While email may now and forever be the Internet's ultimate "killer app," there was a time when BBSs or bulletin board systems -- electronic equivalents of the neighborhood message board -- ruled cyberspace. Back then, email systems were sparsely connected, and sending email often required you to remember or discover transmission paths. (Perhaps some of you remember specifying routing instructions in email addresses with %, !s, and @.) Instead, computer hobbyists and nascent Internet users dialed-up services like Usenet and The Well to meet, debate, discuss, and yes, flame.

While email may now and forever be the Internet’s ultimate “killer app,” there was a time when BBSs or bulletin board systems — electronic equivalents of the neighborhood message board — ruled cyberspace. Back then, email systems were sparsely connected, and sending email often required you to remember or discover transmission paths. (Perhaps some of you remember specifying routing instructions in email addresses with %, !s, and @.) Instead, computer hobbyists and nascent Internet users dialed-up services like Usenet and The Well to meet, debate, discuss, and yes, flame.

But more importantly, bulletin boards provided — and still provide — a sense of community: unlike email, bulletin boards are a destination in the ether(net), a place to return to time and again to foster friendships and relationships. Indeed, it’s that sense of community and destination that’s kept bulletin boards relevant. If you use email, you can only reach the people you know — perhaps only one or two degrees of separation. If you post to a bulletin board — well, you’ll never know who you’ll meet or who might respond. Not suprisingly then, bulletin boards crop up almost everywhere in a variety of forms for any number of purposes, including technical support, outreach, advocacy, and news commentary.

In response to demand, a great number of commercial and open source bulletin board packages have been developed. One of the most robust and mature open source bulletin board systems is phpBB. Created in 2000 by James “thefinn” Atkinson, phpBB has not only survived as an open source project, it’s evolved and expanded to become as capable as any for-fee software. Free and powerful: a recipe for success.

This month, Linux Magazine Editor-in-Chief Martin Streicher and Sourceforge.net Site Director Pat McGovern drop in on phpBB lead founder and project leader Atkinson, 24, and phpBB developer Paul S. Owen, who says his age is “increasing daily,” to see what’s new in their virtual neighborhood.

James, what is phpBB and what makes it unique?

JAMES ATKINSON: phpBB, as its name connotes, is a discussion forum system written in PHP. It’s a flat (non-threaded) forum, with all of the bells and whistles that you’d expect these days.

In my opinion — and Paul may have different ideas — what makes phpBB unique is our development philosophy. We’re one of the few systems that is wholly open, and by far we’re the most popular. Most of our competitors are closed source, and most are for-profit systems or are moving toward that goal. phpBB is also the most stable. Of all the systems that started around the same time we did, our project is the only one that’s never changed leadership, never changed name, never changed licensing terms. We’re a very stable project with very clear goals for making the best forum we possibly can.

PAUL S. OWEN: There is no lack of boards available, and more spring up each day. What makes us unique is our longevity: we’ve existed now for over three years. During that time, other boards have come and gone or have altered their philosophy. Only a handful of us have survived intact and retain the same goals with which we began.

James, with arguably so many choices, what prompted you to create your own board?

ATKINSON: I started phpBB simply out of necessity. My wife had a web site at the time and wanted a discussion forum. I was a member of several forums at the time that were running Infopop’s UBB. I liked UBB, and thought it was an excellent piece of software. However, I couldn’t afford it, being a poor college student, so I decided to write my own. PHP was my favorite language at the time, so that’s what I used. I started out cloning what I found in UBB, but once the community around phpBB picked up, we went in our own direction.

What do you now, James? How much time do you spend on phpBB?

ATKINSON: I’m currently a professional web developer, living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I graduated college with a diploma in computer information systems around the same time I started the phpBB project. Since that time I’ve worked full time as a PHP developer, and I’m currently the sole web developer for a large travel wholesaler in Edmonton, Alberta.

At one time phpBB was my full time job, but that was long ago. These days, I don’t contribute much code, but I do try and help run the community and help manage the teams we have. I also have ultimate say on what goes into the project, but leave most of those types of decisions to Paul. I spend most of my day browsing our forums and chatting on our IRC channel, but I’d say I only spend 3 or 4 hours a week actually doing phpBB-related things. Some days it’s quite a bit more, some it’s quite a bit less.

Paul, how did you get started on phpBB?

OWEN: In 2000, I decided to add a board to one of my sites. At the time there were few options using PHP. The original solution I selected was excellent, but lacked certain features and was rather narrow in its focus. I was also concerned about the inward nature of that project and its extremely slow pace of improvement. I found phpBB after a search for alternatives and began to modify it for use on my site. Soon after James released 1.0.0, he asked for help developing the next release, so I volunteered and subsequently joined the team. At the moment, phpBB takes up most of my time. I work other tasks in around it.

What kind of stats does phpBB have?

OWEN: We think there are in excess of 100,000, possibly even 200,000 sites, running phpBB. On the day phpBB 2.0.0 was due for release, we had over 320 visitors in a five minute period.

ATKINSON: Once phpBB started to become popular, our community exploded. Right now there are over 80,000 people registered on our support forums (although only about half of them are active in any way).

What really clinched [our success] for me was when the company I was working for hired a new developer and my co-worker asked him, “Hey, have you ever heard of phpBB?” and he responded, “Yeah, you bet.” I’m still waiting for someone to come up to me on the street while I’m wearing my phpBB t-shirt and say, “Hey, I use that on my web site!”

Why do you think your project has been so well received?

ATKINSON: This is going to sound a little conceited, but it’s because we’re the best. We’re simply the best open source discussion board software out there. A lot of people have considered phpBB to be the best of its breed for a long time, and that’s contributed a lot to our status in the forum world.

OWEN: I think mainly because we’ve been unswerving in our approach. We laid out our goals, our positions, and have stuck to them. I think this shows the community that no matter what others may do, phpBB remains on the same path it started down in the beginning.

What’s next then?

ATKINSON: phpBB v2.0 was a full rewrite. We built a very stable base to add innovative features to. phpBB v2.2 is currently in the works; we’re on milestone two of four right now, and work is progressing quite will. Version 2.2 will be our “feature-centric” release, where we add the things people have been asking for and suggesting for some time. Beyond 2.2? Well, that’s ultimately up to our users. We serve them in the end.

OWEN: We remain one of the “big three” boards on the web, but like the other two we are working on a new release. phpBB 2.2 takes phpBB 2.0, gives it a good shake, and adds in many requested features.

[For example,] we’ve added active “modding” (previously known as “hacks”) to support the modding community, which continues to flourish. There are literally hundreds of mods available, doing just about anything you could wish for. One of most active contributors and team members (“Nuttzy99″) continues to simplify the lives of those modding their boards through EasyMod, an add-on script for automating the addition of mods.

Other features users can look forward to include a radically overhauled administration system; an improved styling system with online editing capabilities based around templates, images, and CSS; many new moderation options; updated user management, including an even more advanced permissions system; per post multiple attachments. We also have a couple of ideas that we hope will offer admins a fairly unique and extensible system for automation.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

ATKINSON: I always find that a very hard question to answer. I suppose the biggest challenge is keeping a team of developers, support staff, moderators, and others organized and working toward a common goal. Since we’re an open source project, all of our teams are volunteers, and as such, finding people that can devote their free time to keeping our little project going can be hard. However, our current team is excellent. We’ve got a great set of developers — including, Ludovic “ashe” Arnauda, Meik “acydburn” Sievertsen, and Bart “bartvb” Van Bragt, and previously, Nathan “nate” Codding, Jonathan “the_systech” Haase, and Tom “subblue” Beddard, and Doug “dougk_ff7″ Kelly — and an amazing group of support people to keep our growing user base happy.

What are you most proud of?

ATKINSON: The project itself I guess. I’m proud that I was able to create something that so many people find useful. I’ve written a lot of software in my time that didn’t get used by anyone, so it’s nice to seem something I had a hand in out there and in use by the masses.

OWEN: Managing to overcome the odd defining moment and see phpBB come out of it, typically stronger. Being nominated for a Webby award this year, alongside such greats as Google, Apache, and Linux, was also a proud moment for all our team members.

phpBB founder and project leader James Atkinson can be reached at james@phpbb.com. Lead phpBB developer Paul S. Owen’s email address is paul@starstreak.net.

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