An online bulletin board in essence is an Internet-enabled version of the bulletin boards found in stores and other public areas. It’s basically just a place where people leave messages for others to read. Well, the online bulletin board applications have become much more powerful and sophisticated than that, but the general principle is the same. phpBB is one of the most popular free software that implement the bulletin board idea on the Web today.
In the first chapter of this phpBB book, you will learn about:
phpBB development and where it’s heading
What can be achieved with phpBB, and examples of existing phpBB sites
An online community is a group of people who gather together on a website for some reason. This reason can be any subject of interest common to the group, like occupation, hobby, passion, or location. Such online communities are very popular, and their popularity is growing as more and more people start surfing the Web. Think about it—everyone has something he or she is passionate about. And everybody likes meeting people who share their interests. Historically, such computer-based communities existed even before the Internet; using, for example, the modem-to-modem based bulletin board systems (BBS).
An essential part of being in a community is sharing and contributing (for example, commenting on a subject or pointing out topics of interest for the group). This way, the site visitors are no longer just looking at a website that is set in stone. They are changing its face by contributing content. Today, the ability to post comments on the websites we visit has become so common that we almost expect it to be there.
Static, brochure-like sites are becoming outdated. Communities rule the Web. This is good news for both site owners and site visitors. Sites are built to be visited and used by people, and at the same time, the people are taking part in building the sites they visit. Site owners can get immediate feedback on what their visitors like or dislike, and visitors get new and fresh content on every visit. It’s quite common these days that the community would not just influence a site owner’s decisions, but even make the decisions through polls or open discussions. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that more often than not, the success or the failure of a website is determined by the success or the failure in building an online community around the website. At the end of the day, a site is built to be used by the people, and the people have the final say if this site is worth something or not.
In order to set up the place where your online community will meet, you need tools. You can invest your efforts into creating the tools yourself—assuming of course that you have expertise in web programming, server administration, and so on—or you can decide not to reinvent the wheel and can adopt a solution. That’s where phpBB comes in.
There are different sorts of community-building tools out there. They can be as simple as a guestbook, or as complicated like chat systems, web logs (blogs), or mailing lists. Or they can be forums, also known as bulletin boards. The forum systems inherited and extended the bulletin board systems (BBS) from the dark pre-Internet ages, adding a web browser interface to them. phpBB belongs to the family of forum tools for building an online community.
The name consists of two parts—"PHP" and "BB". PHP is the programming language in which the software is written, and "BB" stands for "bulletin board"; it’s a bulletin board tool written in the PHP programming language.
PHP itself is an abbreviation, and it stands, or at least used to stand, for Personal Home Page. PHP is no longer just a set of personal home page tools as it was in the beginning, but has grown to become a true programming language. Its abbreviation has gone one level deeper, and now recursively stands for "PHP Hypertext Preprocessor". But it’s really known simply as PHP.
The programming code to be executed
A database to store information
Web-server software, since this is a web application
A computer to run all this!
As you already know, phpBB is coded using the PHP server-side programming language. Additionally in order to run, phpBB needs a database. That’s where all discussions’ data is stored. There are different database systems out there that phpBB can work with, but the most popular and most commonly used in today’s PHP applications is MySQL. Finally, phpBB needs a web server and a computer running an operating system. phpBB can run on different operating systems and web servers, but it’s mostly used on a Linux platform with the Apache web server.
Using the web developers’ lingo, you might say that phpBB is mostly used in LAMP environments, where LAMP is an abbreviation for Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. One important thing about the LAMP environment is that its components are free and open source. In practice "free and open-source" means:
You can use the software without paying for software licenses.
The programming code of the software is available to you if you want to modify it to better suit your needs.
Another good thing about phpBB is that it has very low requirements for the hosting server. Due to the fact that the phpBB environment consists of free software products, you can find a good and quite inexpensive hosting provider very easily. Just searching Google for "phpbb hosting" yields about a million results.
Why should you pick phpBB from all the options you have to choose from? Well, since you’re reading this book, chances are you’ve already made up your mind, so let me just give you a few hints about how to deal with this fellow webmaster friend of yours that’s running vBulletin, Phorum, or another type of system.
phpBB is free. And it seems like it’s going to stay this way. There have already been offers from companies to buy phpBB, but those were refused.
phpBB is one of the most popular forum software. All those webmasters out there cannot be wrong. Continued usage of phpBB to power their web communities is their best testimonial.
People know phpBB. Being so popular, it’s very likely that your visitors have seen and used it already. They don’t have to learn an entirely new system, and can start posting at once, feeling comfortable in a known environment.
phpBB is mature. It has been around for more than four years of active and heavy use, which in Internet terms is a pretty long period.
phpBB is feature rich and is open for custom feature additions. You can code your own custom features or you can use one or more of the numerous phpBB add-ons, also known as MODs or hacks, contributed by the community of phpBB users.
phpBB’s looks are customizable. You can easily change fonts and colors. You can even change the layout or use an existing layout contributed by other phpBB users.
James Atkinson is the creator of the software. He’s the first developer and now the project manager of the phpBB project. Like a lot of other open-source projects, phpBB started as a personal project. James wanted to set up a discussion forum on his wife’s site. At this time, he had two options: using a commercial package like the pioneer UBB (Ultimate Bulletin Board, written in Perl) or using the free solution named Phorum, which was written in PHP, but had a thread style James didn’t like very much. So he decided to go on his own and create a UBB-like PHP-based bulletin board system.
phpBB was "born" on July 1st, 2000, at 06:45 PM. We know the exact date and time, because that’s when James posted a message on an Internet forum saying that he had created a bulletin board and would like some help with the testing. A few weeks later he opened up the source code for the project, making it free and available for everyone who wanted to join in and contribute to the development.
Other enthusiasts joined, and on December 16th, 2000, the first official phpBB was released—phpBB version 1.0. After this, the release-feature requests-development-testing-release wheel started spinning for the phpBB team.
phpBB became really popular after version 2.0 was released on April 4th, 2002. This version was a complete rewrite of the source code, because the software had become much more feature rich than originally expected, and the old codebase just couldn’t accommodate the new development. The interface was also completely revamped.
The developers are volunteers from around the world. phpBB is an example of a successful open-source project. It has an impressive team list of about 50 people, when most open-source projects have two or three.
There’s a community of users who often convert into collaborators.
You might be wondering how the community and the open-source nature of phpBB can help its development. There are a lot of ways, but just to name the major ones:
Using and thus testing the software
Reporting bugs so they can be fixed by the developers
Contributing new features through MODs and hacks, and in this way extending the functionality
Contributing new templates for the other phpBB admins to use
Supporting other phpBB users with tips and advice
Advocating and promoting phpBB, in this way increasing the size of the community
phpBB is under constant development. The work for version 3 is well underway, and in the spirit of this open-source project, the work in progress is available for preview and comments as it’s developed.
You can use your preferred color scheme, fonts, and overall layout.
You can modify phpBB and develop your own feature extensions, or you can use existing modifications.
In this section, you will find a few real-life examples of how phpBB is used to power online community sites.
Let’s start with an example of an out-of-the-box solution that uses the default phpBB style and the default set of features. On this example site, even the phpBB logo is left intact. This is the site of Distributed Proofreaders (http://www.pgdp.net/phpBB2/), a site that uses phpBB to provide a web-based method of easing the proofreading work associated with the digitization of public-domain books into Project Gutenberg e-books. By breaking the work into individual pages, many proofreaders can be working on the same book at the same time.
Instead of going with the default phpBB looks, you can find a pre-made template that better suits your needs and layout/color preferences. Or, if you can’t find a template you’d like to use and you know some HTML, you can even create your own custom templates. Here are some sites that use templates different than the default one.
Mike Lothar: The personal site (http://community.mikelothar.com/) of one of the authors of the Packt book Building Online Communities with phpBB 2 (ISBN: 1-904811-13-2). His chapter in that book guides you through the process of creating your own custom templates:
Keenspot: A bulletin board for discussing comic books (http://forums.keenspot.com/):
ForumPlasma: A gaming community (http://www.forumplasma.com/):
You can find lots of pre-made MODs available for free download, and you can use them to enhance your board.
Dogomania forums: A community of dog owners. The site differs from the standard phpBB installation with its custom header, footer, and navigation (http://forum.dogomania.com/):
GaiaOnline is the ultimate phpBB bulletin board. The template for this site is custom, and quite a few features, customizations, and optimizations are introduced. With about 200 million posts and 1.5 million registered users, this is the biggest bulletin board on the Internet (http://www.gaiaonline.com):
This chapter familiarized you with the phpBB solution and the problem it solves. You’ve learned about its history and development. You also saw a number of existing phpBB-powered community websites that can give you a hint about what you could achieve with the software. You’re now ready to learn about the installation, configuration, and customization of a phpBB board. Very soon, as soon as the end of the next chapter, you’ll be able to start your own community site. Let’s take the trip to the world of phpBB.