XenForo: The Future of Forum Software

Is Facebook killing forums?  That was an essay topic on the Admin Zone forums.  My opinion is that forums have survived the onslaught of all sorts of “threats” over the years, which turned out to be minor blips on the radar.  As the Facebooks over the years have come and gone, forums have survived.  We’ve survived instant messaging, Twitter, MySpace and other so far.  Forums are more focused, and group members are more single-minded in the topic at hand.  Facebook is more generalized, simpler and more user-friendly in many aspects; we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Forum software itself has grown rather stagnant, however.  phpBB3 was a long-overdue update to phpBB2 that caused many forum owners such as myself to look elsewhere since the software sat undeveloped for about five years.  SMF’s latest version looked promising but there, the development staff has splintered and development has ceased, despite what they are claiming publicly.  vBulletin had a major update with the release of 4.0, but many forum administrators (present company included) found it to be a bit nicer looking, but also a bit slower and rather devoid of any really new thinking in the area of forum software.  How did such a major and influential product lose its way?

vBulletin’s development company, Jelsoft, was purchased by Internet Brands a couple of years ago, and shortly thereafter a good portion of vBulletin’s core development team left their ranks.  Little did anyone expect that Kier Darby, Mike Sullivan and others would start their own company, XenForo, and release a new forum package.  While it could have been an also-ran in the marketplace, Kier and Mike, the lead developers behind vBulletin, put a lot of thought into how most members interact with a forum.  They also took into account more current thinking in terms of “liking” a post or thread, sharing content, posting statuses, and other items that Web 2.0 users have grown accustomed to.

XenForo (XF) is the answer to all of this.  At first look…where have all the features gone?  XF looks bare.  After spending time with it, you realized it is now uncluttered, with few distractions to take your attention away from the actual converation.  Those features you were familiar with in vB are still there–they are only a click or two away, once you know where to find them.  The same goes on the administration side:  you see very few options at first, but a few mouse clicks bring you to a full range of message, board and member management options that you need in any busy forum environment.

The interface itself is clean and attractive.  Response, though, is scary–your posts appear immediately without a page reload.  Thanks to AJAX, your new post is added to the database behind the scenes, and your post appears within the thread nearly instantly.  The same goes for other functions, many of which take the form of an overlay on the current page.  This makes navigation more slick than other systems out there.

Is it stable?  In my relatively small exposure to it (I’ve only had the license for three days now), there hasn’t been a single hiccup in operation.  The same can be said for the live version on XF’s support forum, which is actually a version direct from the SVN repository updated several times daily!   The developers have used existing PHP frameworks to create this new system, and is written in a modular approach that allows the addition of new functions without having to “reinvent the wheel” each time.

For such a young project, I’m very impressed with how far it has come, and how stable and fully-featured it is.  There are still many requested features they are considering or working on, but the core of XF is rock solid.

One concern about such a young project is whether or not it will be around in a year or so.  Well…on the eve of XF’s first public beta release, Internet Brands threw the usual lawsuit at XenForo for breach of contract, copyright infringement, etc.  The end result:  many long-time vB administrators decided not to renew their licenses, or sell their existing ones, and hop over to XenForo.  The developers are well-known names in the field, and with so many throwing their support behind XF at this early stage, I have no doubt it will be a success.  And with Kier and Mike no longer with the vBulletin staff, many of us wonder what direction vB will take with future products.  (They’re already tossing out surveys to get input for version 5.)

We wish the XenForo staff all the best of luck in their new enterprise.  It’s an exciting time to be in on the ground floor of a well-accepted new product such as this.  I’m looking forward to what XF will surprise us with in the future!

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