We have run a number of phpBB forums for around ten years. It was the standard, it was free and it was great.

However since version 3.0.3 very little has happened. It was … SOCIAL MEDIA. No more, the rise of Twitter and Facebook has made forums a minority interest. Will it fade away as a medium for public discussion as did Usenet? Meanwhile amongst the other forum products the sale of the commercial VBulletin appears to have moved the market.

The new owners of VBulletin appear in many eyes to be ‘harvesting the base’. In other words escalating costs on the basis that their customers will find it hard to move away whilst not not investing in the R&D needeed to keep VBulletin at the cutting edge of forum software.

Meanwhile the original authors of VBulletin reappeared with a new product Xenforo. Inevitably they have drawn lawsuits from the owners of VBulletin which must be a worry for their customers. However, given the opportunity to start with a clean sheet to produce a VBulletin that is much better than VBulletin then many think they have succeeded. Use of Xenforo forums will have appreciated the innovations that are so familiar in the other social media such as ‘likes’ & ‘tagging’. They have also followed Twitter and Facebook into the mobile world through responsive themes.

All in all providing a constantly improving user experience.

So back to phpBB and life in the last decade. Second only to the threat of spammers and trolls the drift away from an open and community based forum to a closed proprietary social medium caused by unresponsive software unsuited to being viewed anywhere and everywhere on anything is a serious cause of concern for any forum administrator.

Hence I asked the members of our most popular forum whether they wanted to move to Xenforo to gain all these goodies. The answer was an unexpected ‘No’. The reasons were many but the move away from FOSS was a major with impications of commercialising the forum to compensate for licensing fees. Another is the basically people will change but paradoxically they do not want change with stuff they use and are familiar with.

Whilst respecting the wishes of the community members a slowly dying forum serves no one. The major shortcoming was the poor way the forum was rendered on small devices. We had a browser sniffer that delivered a very cut down mobile theme to mobile devices. That was fine in the pre-iPhone days when screens were tiny. But it was also delivering the the same experience on a 10″ iPad or Android tablet and looked awful. Fiddling with user agents to try and match theme to device would be too messy, time consuming and still would not satisfy all.

The simple solution was to move to a responsive theme. It couldn’t just be any responsive theme since it had to integrate with the black’n’white WordPress AR2 themed part of the website. The closes fit was Artodia’s Air theme. I modified the theme and you can see the results above as it appears on desktop and mobile screens. One theme any device – an admin’s dream.

Except that many people on the forum were still in love with the sites previous blue incarnation. Artodia’s Phantom was a very close blue match. The mods required to Sydenhamize it were very similar so I thought it prudent to buy some support by providing this too. Phantom had a green variant so why not do that too? And for those that wanted no change why not retain the old classic desktop and very basic mobile version as options they can select and default to if they so wish.

Hence the final version now has a styleswitcher at the bottom with all five options. Its as far as I can get to pleasing all of the people all of the time. On the train, in the lecture theatre and everywhere else members may be tempted to discover and contribute too the latest in London SE26.

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More than one way of skinning … a forum
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