I recently upgraded the OpenQA forums over to Jive Forums 5.5 (beta) and I am very impressed. We were using a pretty old version (4.2.1) and the difference was like night and day.
The upgrade was as simple as it can get
- Copy the new war file over the old one.
- Open the forums in the browser.
- Enter the administrators password to initiate the upgrade process.
- See a nice little list of steps that need to be completed, along with estimated times for each task.
It really was that easy. Everyone should build software this good. The only other company I know that has a nice upgrade framework is Atlassian, and theirs is nowhere as elegant, nor does it provide the visual feedback that inspires confidence in a process that inherently introduces risk.
Reply by watches
By far my favorite new feature. Previously, the OpenQA forums have been using Jive’s unique “email gateway” feature that allowed a mailing list and a forum to stay in sync. This let users choose the style of message delivery (web, RSS, forum watch email, mailing list membership, etc).
I chose RSS+web because I get enough email as is and hate being subscribed to random lists that I can’t remember how to jump off of. Plus, I like knowing that my membership is part of the forums, which gets you little things like “reward points” for answering questions (something which obviously email doesn’t have).
But whenever I traveled, I missed email. I wanted to be able to reply to the threads I saw in my RSS reader while offline in an airplane, but I couldn’t. In the latest version of forums, Jive introduced a killer new feature: reply to watches by email.
Now I can watch my feeds in RSS, but when I know I’ll be on the road coming up, I can turn on my email watches to the forum. Then, as each message comes in, I can reply to the watch notification itself and my response will automatically show up in the forums (and get sent out to the mailing lists, thanks to the gateway we’re using). To me, this is the best of both worlds, and Jive did an excellent job with it.
My only complaint is that the subject the watches come in with is unique every time. This is due to how they sync up replies with threads. The downside of this is that my watch notifications won’t get grouped together as a thread in my mail client, so it’s a bit harder to follow conversations. I also had to modify the watch templates to include the entire thread instead of just the new message. This gives the required context that one would expect if they wanted to reply by email.
The new forums also allow for common formatting, often found in wikis, to be used in forum posts. This is nice because now I can format new replies by email and I know it’ll look good for both audiences: text (email) and HTML (web and RSS).
But what I was really impressed with was the customizations. Jive supports a link syntax similar to Confluence (Atlassian’s wiki) that uses square brackets. Unfortunately, the OpenQA forums use square brackets a lot due to the fact that people post xpath expressions all the time, such as
This, of course, produced some bogus links. What impressed me is that I could drill in to the wiki formatting settings and individually turn off link support. Even more: when I turned it off, it no longer appeared in the help guide! That’s the way software should work all the time.
THe OpenSymphony Forums have had integrated web chat support for a while, written by yours truly. However, the OpenQA ones never did because I didn’t want to maintain the code going forward. While it isn’t quite as nice as the OpenSymphony forums, Jive Forums now comes with an integrated web-based group chat. This is a great way to host meetings and to help people out in real time.
The features I’m missing from the OpenSymphony forums are:
- Ability for chat transcripts to be easily searchable and accessible. I did this by posting the chat log to the forums every 24 hours, but other solutions are possible too
- When in the forums, being notified that activity is happening in the forums (new message posted). I did this with a “chatbot” in the OS forums, but again, this could be done other ways, such as XMPP watches, etc.
- Tying chat rooms and forums together such that the people in the associated chat room are listed along side the forum as “now chatting”. Even better, their expertise level (reward points) are shown, so people can immediately tell if experts are ready to help them in real time.
The good news is that a lot of this stuff will likely end up in some sort of integration between Openfire and Clearspace (think of it as Forums + blogs + wiki + content management + etc).
Overall, Forums 5.5 was a great improvement. I’m looking forward to Clearspace, when hopefully my little nit-picks will be addressed