A New Forum User Experience?

I’ve been a huge fan of vBulletin forum software since I first installed it on Reel-Time.com in 2001.  In the intervening years, I’ve seen software come and software go, but vBulletin continues to chug along.

Over the past 10 months, I’ve spent a lot of time working on a massive vBulletin site, http://www.splitcoaststampers.com and I’ve got to admit, I’m finding the vBulletin experience somewhat lacking.  Perhaps it’s just that so many of the same old foibles remain in the core product, but truthfully, I’m looking for a more satisfying experience in forum software.

Let me be clear, the software works great and continues to chug away.  My issue is that some of the things I’d like to be able to do with the software that should be easy, aren’t.

My main grudge is this:  the software is still table based.  Tons and tons of nested tables, all of them making it a nightmare to style.  Each of the pages reuses a common header, but due to tons of  <div> tags with no id or class, you have to get very creative to make any changes.  Even worse, those divs are reused throughout the software, in different roles, so often, you will want to make a change on one page and you’ll end up affecting others. So you write a conditional (if this, then that) which is page specific.  However, soon you find you’ve got a header file that is hundreds of lines of code, as it must account for a multitude of variables.

The vBulletin folks are in the process of a rewrite, which will be released in the fall as version 4.0.  This version will supposedly get rid of all the tables and move to a fully css driven design, but frankly, I’m hearing rumblings now that, well, it might be mostly css, or worse.

My general list of stuff that’s got to be fixed:

  • Search doesn’t scale – one of the systems perennial Achille’s Heels, and a constant source of pain for site owners.
  • Tables, bloody tables – yeah, I mentioned it before, but it’s got to be mentioned before.
  • Template debugging – the vBulletin template system consumes errors.  Testing of templates and plugins is an utter nightmare, because it doesn’t allow you to see even PHP’s most mundane error message.
  • Nesting of Conditional Statements – we’ve got a pretty good model in PHP for how an if then statement ought to work.  However vBulletin conditional statements for some reason don’t follow that logic.  They’re powerful, don’t get me wrong, but they’re hard to keep straight when you have a need for a good “else if” which currently requires nesting.

So I’m now thinking: is there any other software out that that isn’t table based that is both scalable and provides a top notch user experience?  I’m interested in your suggestions…

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