We needed a user forum for the sventon project, so we went looking for suitable software to implement this. We found phpBB that looked like a nice fit for the environment our hosting service is offering. I decided to try it out and downloaded the distribution. I discovered a beautiful piece of software, at least on the outside. I have not looked at the code, but my experience tells me that the outside and the inside tend to go together (at least when it comes to software, I’m not sure the same can be said about humans). The installation was a breeze: Upload the files to the server, point your browser to the installation page, enter a few configuration parameters and you’re pretty much done. No messing around with database schemas and SQL create scripts, no searching for configuration files in weird places and trying to figure out what needs to be changed, no nothing. For security reason the application won’t even start until you have deleted the configuration and installation directories, everything to minimize the possible ways to mess up.
This is ease of use money can’t buy. Have you ever tried to install an Oracle product you know what I mean: After wading through oceans of OLAF wizard screens, only to get harshly interrupted by a Java stack trace, you end up with an half baked install, and Java 1.1.8 as the system default runtime. Yuck.
My guess is that phpBB grew so popular that the ease of use had to be top-notch for the developers not to drown in support requests (but then again, I have never used phpBB before, the installation procedure may have been this good since day one, and that is the reason for its popularity). Oracle and their colleagues in the closed source arena, on the other hand, really don’t mind taking support calls from frustrated users; on the contrary, it’s a core part of their business.
I know, this hypothesis doesn’t really scale well. Many, perhaps most, open-source projects are a pain to install (trying to install Linux on an AST laptop in 1997 was an experience I’d rather not go through again), but the really successful ones are easy to use, easy to install and well documented, including frameworks such as Hibernate and Spring as well as Linux of year 2007. And of course, there are commercial offerings that are great as well, Orion server comes to mind; unzip the download and the install is completed. Nice.
Regarding the sventon user forum, we finally settled on something even easier: Google Groups.
Conclusion: I don’t know. Whatever. Go code something.