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Looking back- an interview with Joseph Fung, Jeff Lewis and [Unknown]

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HoTmetal:
As Simple Machines readies itself for a new year, I thought I'd take a look back at just how far we've come.  In doing so, I immediately contacted a few of SMF's founders, Joseph Fung, Jeff Lewis, and [Unknown]. For most SMF'ers, this group needs not introduction, all of which have played an instrumental role in not only SMF, but in the evolution of Forum development in general.

Jeff and Joseph were both team members of a perl forum system called Yabb. (Yet another Bulletin Board), they went on to port it into a PHP based forum called YabbSE.
It was a hit within the forum software community. Later, with a total revamp provided by a new developer [Unknown], the team took another turn, and formed SMF....

Jeff Lewis in Maroon.
Joseph Fung in Navy.
[Unknown] in Orange.

"How did the name SMF come about? How was it chosen? How was it decided?"

Jeff
When we started to make the move to making SMF it's own entity we realized it needed a fresh, new face and along with that would be a name. We discussed all sorts of names from things like Zeal to Palinola. In the end we decided Simple Machines was a good candidate for a name and one that would allow us to expand our offerings forum software into other areas such as galleries, CMS, etc. In the end it was decided by a vote in the boards and I think it turned out to be a good choice .

Joseph
We had a long, long discussion on what to name the system, and the conversation kept coming back to the question of "what did we want to be recognized for". We didn't wan to be just another "cool-sounding" name; we wanted it to mean something. We kept coming back to two ideas: first, that we wanted the software to be recognized as one of the easiest to install and manage, and second, that we wanted to build more than just one software title, that could be easy to use and easy to integrate. The closest analogy that we could come up with was the idea of a set of simple machines (i.e. lever, ramp, etc) and that we could do things like a Simple Machines Forum, Simple Machines CMS, Simple Machines Gallery etc. I can't remember if it was Jeff or I that suggested it, but I'm pretty certain it was one of us. As to how it was decided, it was a simple vote on the boards.

[Unknown]
We had a contest, team members picked names - zeal and palinola were the most popular iirc. Then, Jeff Lewis came up with Simple Machines, bought the domain immediately, and we decided to think up a new name. smForum was the first choice, but had negative connotations in Europe.  I think we wanted to avoid BB... And SMF was suggested. Honestly, I didn't like it at first but there was worse.  I think I liked Zeal... Can't remember...
For a long time I would always spell it out as Simple Machines Forum but SMF grew on me eventually.

"You were on the Yabb team, when you both decided to create the splinter edition "SE" and port it to PHP, what was thing 1st thing you did?"

Joseph and I got together at my place over a weekend and pounded out a translation of the Perl code to PHP. We just started opening files and translating it line per line and did little testing until the end. We took a screenshot of our first view of the translated version which I am sure we still have somewhere.  It made for a good laugh.

I think the first thing we did was meet up at Jeff's place for a weekend of intense coding, trying to get everything translated to PHP. It was a crazy ride, because we translated *everything* before we even tried running it once! The first execution was a laughable failure, but after enough trial and error we had it running pretty smoothly.

"What was your initial goal?"

We wanted to offer a PHP/mySQL alternative to what was available at the time. Several issues were popping up due to the Perl/flatfile system we had in use and we felt a database backend was the way to go. By forming a new team it allowed us to forge ahead with the same goals and ideals.

Our initial goal was to provide a good PHP and MySQL alternative to YaBB, and to participate in a software project that had the energy and philosophies that we enjoyed. Every team has it's own character, and we found that we were looking for something slightly different from the original YaBB project. So, the project was as much for our personal satisfaction, as it was to provide something great for the forum-user community.

With SMF, it was initially intended as a stop gap for Trinity, or YaBB SE 2.  It was taking too long, and too many of its features (which were by far the most popular feature requests or sources of confusion in support) weren't hard to back port.

Coincidentally, this is why I always fielded support, even as a lead developer.  It kept me in touch with what was needed and what was bloat (so I hope.)

"How did SMF start? What was the 1st thing you did?"

The start to SMF was almost by accident really. We were starting code work on YaBB SE 2 but were fighting with other issues that were not code related at the time so we weren't progressing as much as we had hoped right away. One of the newer developers on the team named [Unknown] had been working on cleaning up YaBB SE and making some big changes in what he coined his "Secret Project". We had known YaBB SE needed some optimization as ultimately it was the same older functions used since the port to PHP and they drastically needed updating. When we saw what [Unknown] had in place, we scrapped what we had started and the "Secret Project" became SMF. One of the first things we did was decide on a name and a process of making the switch from YaBB SE to SMF.

During the development of YaBB SE 2 (usually referred to YSE2) we had a lot of mixed opinions on direction for the project as a whole, and on the software version itself. We had also just made it though a tumultuous encounter with a competitor that had been trying to steal our code, so the entire team was a little uncertain about which route to go.
       
While this was going on, one of the newer developers to the team, [Unknown] started working on something he called his "Secret Project" - it was essentially a rebuild of the YaBB SE functionality, with some key upgrades, but on a completely new code base. We spent a lot of time reviewing the Secret Project code base, and in the end we decided to use that as the basis for YSE2, as opposed to the existing work that had been done.

That code became the first releases of SMF. I think the first thing we did when SMF was released, was to tell everyone about the new branding, the new site, and to begin locking off areas of the old YaBB SE site to make sure we could pull over as many members as possible.

I started it as what I called my secret project.  The first part I started changing was MessageList.php - adding templates and reorganizing code. I also wanted to do [different] from YaBB SE, was make it use better packages in the package manager.
Initially, I had only intended to add a few templates and child boards to YaBB SE, and make it a mod... but I got carried away.

"Did you imagine it getting so big?"

Definitely. I think the approach we used was one that could be embraced by users and web site owners. By offering easy to use, FREE software that had good community support and a team that was willing to listen to it's users I think it was inevitable that it would grow. I still think there is a lot of room to grow for the project even more so than the success it has already achieved.

Always :)  I think it's pretty safe to say that Jeff and I have always had pretty ambitious goals. For myself, all I can see for the YaBB SE / SMF project is more exciting growth. The community has truly flourished, and boasts over 100,000 members. However, it's important to realize that it took 3 years for the community to grow from 2 to 10,000 members, but it's only taken another 3 years to get from 10,000 members to 100,000. The project should be able to continue to grow - think about where it will be in the next 3 years!

Not a chance.  I expected it to be a mod, at best as popular as my bugfix ones had been.  When Compuart wanted to make it the next release, I was completely surprised. After that, I did... When we got to 1.0, at least.  This is conceited, but I always thought SMF was better than phpBB, and really thought of vBulletin as its main competition, quality wise.

That said, all the software’s out there are great... And I do remember being surprised when other software’s started adopting our features.  I hadn't considered it would actually affect other software too. I was really happy about that.


"Looking back, if you could of changed one thing, what would it be?"

I think I would have wanted to see a more solid base in place in regard to expansion of Simple Machines. I always felt that we could offer more than just forums and one area I always wanted to expand into was content management solutions and if I could have changed one thing I would have changed was the direction we took in regards to additional software so that we could have grown quicker.


I think I would have pushed harder to try and get greater adoption from non-technical users earlier. One of the greatest assets SMF has is the community of users that clam our for features and changes...getting more non-techie users earlier, would have allowed the project to improve its UI a lot faster, and would have helped us develop more renown outside of the "web developer" circle. There are services out there like BoardNation and Xsorbit that are providing something that I think SMF should have been doing from day 1.

I would have not tried so hard to do everything.  At first it was great, but in the end it became impossible - and there were always volunteers, but many weren't interested in filling shoes I'd been walking in.

That said, I really think my mistakes were forgivable - I would've done much differently knowing what I do now, but that was my first time. Everyone has to learn somewhere, and things were still pretty good. That's a big part of open source to me.

"Knowing what you know now, what advice do you have for the SMF team?"

Stay happy. SMF is a hobby for most and people need to have fun when taking part in hobbies. Do your part to make Simple Machines a fun place to be, have fun with each other within the team, talk to each other, avoid burn out, and be courteous to the users.

I'd recommend a couple of things: 1) try to keep the user community happy, they are your customers and they will fuel your growth and 2) keep a sense of humor about you with regards to the project, and more importantly with regards to yourselves. The project team is made of people who want to *learn* and *grow*.

This means that sometimes decisions won't be made in the optimal way, and that sometimes we need to look at ourselves and laugh. I've been on many, many different teams and the ones that last the longest are the ones that avoid taking themselves too seriously, and remember to enjoy what they are doing.

Don't give up, don't ignore political problems in the team, and listen to what people are really asking for. Also, I hope support for IE 6 hasn't already been dropped.  Lazy :P.

(Blogs and forums, seem to be new buzz words and thus, more and more are building their own sites...) What is your advice to new site owners?

Don't be afraid to embrace change. The internet and technology is ever changing and a site owner needs to be somewhat connected to the changes happening and, if necessary, make the changes to adjust to the current offerings to keep your users happy and coming back. While you may be comfortable with your current set up, your competitors may be offering the same but also something new that your users find they are willing to switch sites for.

First, always work your butt off to attract new visitors and to interact with the ones you have, and second, be willing to pay for a good host who will support you, and for it. More often than not, when a community site fails, it fails because either it can't retain traffic, or because the host doesn't grow with the site. Yes, there are many other possible causes of failure, but a good host is an easy one to resolve, and being sure your attention is put in the right place is also an easy one to fix.

Start small.  Don't try to emulate your favorite big site... You will look like a ghost town. Cliché, but just be you. Also, think hard about content first.  A site without content isn't interesting.

"You're both proactive in the PHP movement, as web designers, what to do look for in a free software?"

I look for software that has decent saturation, decent documentation, and good community support. Nothing is more bothersome than going somewhere and asking a question and not getting an answer for a week. When I find software I want it to do what I acquired it for and avoid bloat and provide a friendly UI - I don't want to be confused looking for a feature I need to use.

Generally I look for features and longevity, before I look at price - and I believe that as designers and developers grow and their businesses mature, they do as well. So for any free software, it's important to take the philosophy of wanting to compete with the paid solutions on features and stability.

I look for an organization that takes pride in itself - they've spent the time to build a decent website, you can tell from the verbiage in their community that they enjoy working together, and you can tell from the way others talk about them that the team has respect.

I also look for a software package that has a clear purpose and direction. Nothing frustrates me more with open-source software, then when the development of the software suddenly changes flavour, and the values it used to have no longer apply (e.g. when a very good "blogging" application suddenly starts trying to roll in features to make it a "cms" application).


I checked out your site (Jeff), and I see that your have a blog on gophp5. What are your thoughts on PHP4 vs 5 when it comes to creating a product that targets the masses? (Joseph/[Unknown], just your thoughts on php4x vs 5x)

Ultimately 4 versus 5 won't matter much to the end user but from a development point of view I'm fairly disappointed in the lack of change from 4 to 5. We're nearing the end of life cycle for PHP 4 in 2008 meaning nothing more will be done with it from the PHP team. PHP 5 has been out for years now and PHP 6 is in development. Hosts are neglecting to upgrade and it's causing drops in PHP penetration. The sooner people move to PHP 5 the better.

Actually, our (Lewis Media) Content Management System, WebAdmin, has required PHP 5 since last summer, so we're already past year 1 of our PHP v5 support. As far as my opinion of it, I believe the number of project still supporting PHP 4 is actually hurting the web development industry. Because of the wide-spread support for PHP 4, hosts are hesitant to upgrade to v5, making it difficult for v5 projects to flourish.

And even those that are pushing for v5, and going for a "we support PHP 5" as opposed to "we adopt PHP 5 methodology". Projects *need* to start abandoning v4 so that they can actually take on the opportunities that are opened with v5 and that will be expanded with v6.

I typically write a lot more with 5 now, but I still often write for 4.3.x.  I don't like pulling the rug of requirements out from under people... never have.

About a year ago Lewis Media did something huge, it gave SMF to itself. What choices were involved? What other alternatives did you have? As other forum sites have gone paid, how big of a step was it to do (and honor the core values)?

I wasn't involved in the discussions outside of some conversations with Joseph about the process and what was happening. To me, it wasn't really a massive change as Simple Machines was always treated as a separate entity from Lewis Media. We've always wanted to offer SMF for free to it's users and did so even though it was "owned" by our business. Essentially the ownership transfer was just a formal separation between Lewis Media and SMF.


I always get a kick out of how surprised some people are by this step. Lewis Media never was anything more than a custodian for the project: the only reason that we had any kind of official presence was to help protect the project against the malicious actions of certain competitors, who wanted to take advantage of a project that had no registered business entity.
Once SMF was ready to take that step, it was simply a matter of logistics to transfer over the rights and titles. The real choices though, were what format the business should be in. We had many, many discussions on whether to incorporate as a not-for-profit, or as a for-profit corp; whether to register in the U.S., or in Canada, how many directors there should be, etc.

Finally, we realized that the debate was slowing the process down and it was more important to move forward and take that step. And that's where we are today. It may seem like a big step - but it really wasn't. Although in theory, there were alternatives (legally, I suppose, we could have kept the software as an Lewis Media product and gone "paid" with the system), in good conscience there wasn't any alternative to the route we went.

We wrote those Core Values so people would know what we stood for. Looking at them, it's clear that the only choice we could have made, was the one we did.

I wasn't involved in this, but it was planned for quite some time. Honestly, I wasn't expecting it to ever actually happen, but I'm very glad it did. I never even considered the thought of SMF going paid.  I can't imagine anyone (at least on the original team) letting that happen. So really, it was no big step.  We were already basically there.

"Which online communities do you frequent now days?"

I don't frequent too much online any more as I found people don't seem to really have that drive any more. Pretty much just the World of Warcraft forums and TMLFans.ca

I frequent the support community for Lewis Media software the most often, as well as several communities that have geographically-local content to me.   Unfortunately, I no longer frequent the SMF community as much as I'd like, but as people and times change - so do the requirements on our time.

Not many. I never liked forums all that much, thought most just ate a lot of time.  Ironic, I know.  But I did like Simple Machines' Community.

How do you see the internet in general changing over the next 10 years? What about online communities in particular? How do you feel forums play a role in this?

There are two VERY key items that are going to rock the way we interact with the web over the next few years: the low cost of GPS chips, and the ubiquity of high-bandwidth wireless technology. These two factors are very similar to the factors that lead to the rapid growth of the web as we know it in the late 90's.. so what we'll see are more and more people accessing content from mobile devices,  and more and more content being geo-targeted.

Imagine, for example, being hungry in down-town Paris, having no idea where to get food you recognize, whipping out a cell phone and typing "Pizza", only to have Google deliver the list of Pizza joints closest to you, ordered by proximity.

That's what our lives with the web are going to be like. Similarly, we're going to see online communities evolve to cross that gap between cell phones and computer-users. Chats between phone users and computer users will be key, the ability to post rich media to communities will be even more important (e.g. calling into a discussion forum and posting your comment in the form of a voice clip from your cell).

Forums play a key role in that they enable asynchronous group communication like nothing else can. This is a VERY important role for teams that are geographically separated - for forums to continue to succeed and be key players, we'll need to focus more on that value statement. Synchronous activities (like chats) or forums for local communities (i.e. neighborhoods) are going to become weaker and weaker as more effective alternatives exists.

Some day, really, DNS will be replaced or upgraded.  Some day.  I expect a lot from WHATWG's XHTML5 also. Less technically, I don't expect it will really change.  Browsers may change.. Inputs may change... Servers may change...

The Internet will still be the Internet, just like restaurants are still restaurants.  Johnny Rockets, Cheesecake Factory, McDonalds... They aren't really much different even though they came from different times.

Communities will evolve.  Maybe people will communicate more with voice, or more visually.  But they will still be people sharing common interests.  They will need organization, tools, and etc. all the same.

UPDATED: Question to [Unknown].
What do you consider as your accomplishments up to this point?

    Personally?  I just got SMF rolling, and as much as some say otherwise
    that really wasn't one of the significant parts to it.  By far what
    Jeff Lewis, Joseph Fung, and Zef Hemel did were accomplishments.

    I guess I really felt accomplished to have read every post, up at
    least until a week or two before I left.  That was really the most
    work of all of it, but I felt it the most necessary.




mcblaber:
This is just amazing.... Wahooo you rock rick. ;)

Wait I better read now. :D

Edit:

It was a very good read and I found many things interesting what I found most interesting was


--- Quote ---Not many. I never liked forums all that much, thought most just ate a lot of time.  Ironic, I know.  But I did like Simple Machines' Community. (unknown)
--- End quote ---
VERY ironic how you can spend that much time if you don't like forum software that much


--- Quote ---I would have not tried so hard to do everything.  At first it was great, but in the end it became impossible - and there were always volunteers, but many weren't interested in filling shoes I'd been walking in.

That said, I really think my mistakes were forgivable - I would've done much differently knowing what I do now, but that was my first time. Everyone has to learn somewhere, and things were still pretty good. That's a big part of open source to me.

--- End quote ---
Thats the way most projects work.. Right?

Something I would say you guys would need to work on is instead of "leaving the community" to still take part in some community discussion. (whether its SMF related or not) Instead of just leaving staying "unknown".  ;)

HoTmetal:
Feel free to Digg it :D.

DonaldJ:
Ooo, I found this quite interesting. Good advice given as well.

babjusi:
How come that the founding fathers of SMF are ''Smf friends'' now? Just curious......

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