Ok, Forums AND Mailing Lists

My previous post has gotten a lot of good comments and responses. I’ve also gotten a dozen replies from an e-mail I sent out to my current beta testers asking for their thoughts, and I’ve had several discussions over IM during the day. More throughts and comments are welcome, but I feel like I’ve got a fairly good handle on what I need at this point: all of the above.

  1. Forums: Gotta have forums for support. People are comfortable with them and they will help reduce the amount of time I spend with support emails.
  2. Announcement Mailing Lists: People want to get product release announcements via email, they should be able to.
  3. Beta Discussion Mailing Lists: Many beta testers want the conversation to come to them. I’ve seen great ideas and debates on the beta mailing lists I’m on and I’d like to have this as an option.

So how does this all come together?

What I want to end up with is a forum that is the superset of all of these. There will be a forum for each product with high-level categories in each product forum. For example:

Tasks
- Support
- Beta Discussion
- Feature Requests
- General
- Localization
- Announcements

Tasks Pro
- Support
- Beta Discussion
- Feature Requests
- General
- Localization
- Announcements

The Support, Beta Discussion, Feature Requests and General categories will be standard web forums with RSS feeds, e-mail notifications for topic replies, etc.

The Announcements category will be a read-only archive of announcements sent to that product’s annoucement mailing list.

The Beta Discussion category will be a synchronized web archive of the beta discussion mailing list, posting in this category will send an email with the content of the post to that mailing list. I haven’t decided if I want to restrict posting access to this category in the web forum.

While the input was coming in I read about, downloaded, installed and tested a number of different forum packages including:

I’ll get the non-contenders out of the way first…

miniBB

I took a look at miniBB because Matt chose to use if for the WordPress Support Forums though they’ve received a mixed reaction by the users. I want more of a standard forum than this.

phpBB

phpBB is the defacto standard PHP forum software. There is lots to like about it but it’s really big, kinda slow and I’m not trying to create a community here as much as I’m trying to facilitate communication (I don’t plan to have avatars, signatures, etc.).

I was amazed at how many different PHP forum packages there are out there. I guess someone looked out at all of them and thought, “Y’know, these 50/75/100 forum packages just aren’t cutting it for me, I’ll have to write my own.”

So on to the contenders…

PunBB

PunBB I’ve liked ever since I ran across it from a random link somewhere. It’s fast, lightweight and seems very solid. It has the major forum features you find everywhere but not many of the extras that I don’t need. It does have RSS feeds (though they are unadvertized), I’d just have to add the links.

What PunBB doesn’t have is integration points for receiving posts from a mailing list and adding them to a forum, or sending new posts in a forum to a mailing list. I’d have to build that. Aside from that, PunBB seems to be just what I’m looking for, there is very little else (create a theme, turn off a few options) I’d change from the default install. It’s also XHTML compliant, a nice plus.

MailGust

MailGust was recommended in the comments of the last post, and from the description it sounded like an intriguing option. It is basically an integrated combination of forums and mailing lists like I’m looking for. After thinking about it for a little while, I was basically convinced that this was the right route to take, so I installed it to check it out in depth and discovered it wasn’t quite what I expected.

MailGust approaches things from a ‘web interface to a mailing list archive’ perspective, which will be true for only a few of the forums I plan to run. The web view is set up with e-mail style headers for posts in threads instead of the traditional forum style headers on the left side of the post content. The terminology in the forums is also strongly slanted towards e-mail: “New Thread” instead of “New Topic”, etc.

The good news is it already has much of the functionality I’m looking for built in and integrated, the bad news is I’d need to re-do a lot of the forum interface to get it where I want it.

Is there another software package out there that does this in an integrated manner? It doesn’t have to be free; I’m going to be spending some time doing customizations otherwise so I don’t mind paying for it.

FUDforum

After testing out MailGust, I went looking for another forum package that had e-mail integration already built in and I found FUDforum. This looks like another solid package with options out the wazoo (in start contrast to PunBB) – I haven’t even seen all the options for this yet. It has the feel of software built by engineers that tried hard to make it look good but their real expertise probably lies elsewhere.

FUDforum has built-in mailing list integration that seems to do exactly what I’m looking for, so I installed it to check it out. It has a couple of UI features that I really like: the ability to expand and collapse top level sections and the option for a tree-like thread view (though it gets a little hard to follow in that view). The effort to make thsi look good was clearly there, but I’d want to improve the spacing, make it feel a little less cluttered, and turn off some of the complexity.

The HTML created by FUDforum isn’t what I’d like either – we’ve got FONT tags and such in there. So FUDforum seems like a good fit on the technology side but the front end would need a bit of work.

PHPList

I’ve pretty much settled on PHPList for the announcement list. It does way more than I need it to and I first came across it in someone’s blog post where they touted it (along with Tasks) as an example of software done right. It seems very solid with a nice set of options and I doubt I’d outgrow it anytime soon. However now that I think about it, perhaps Mailman could do this for me too…

Mailman

Mailman seems to be the standard mailing list software people use. I’d prefer a PHP solution if there is an equivelent to give me the option of doing integrations from the mailing list side.

The question now is: Do I work on modifying an existing integrated solution (MailGust) or cobble together a set of ‘best of breed’ packages to make them work together? If decide to do the integration myself, should I start with PunBB (the forum software I like best) and build the back end? Or FUDforum and fix the front end?

More ideas and suggestions are welcome…

This post is part of the project: Tasks Pro™. View the project timeline for more context on this post.