Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In defense of ready products, Part I

Corporate mentality can play cruel tricks on you. Again and again I see Internet projects fall victim to a curious phenomenon - that of developing proprietary functionality where a ready-made solution would be infinitely more appropriate.

Today's Joel article talks about how eBay bought Skype because eBay is a rich company with lots of spare cash but no ability to develop software. He gives credit the eBay MBAs for at least knowing that they're crap at it and buying a ready-made product instead.

Let me tell you a couple of stories where the MBAs didn't get it.

The first is the IGN messageboard system. Now, the thing about IGN is that they have killer content. Their bread and butter is video games, but even when I was introduced to it back in the summer of 2000, they already had sections for all sorts of things. I went to look at Machine, which was in those days run by a chap named Graham Strouse. He was an opinionated bastard, so naturally we hit it off; I commented on his articles a few times, he suggested I try to do a piece for him, and that was my first big journalistic gig that my dad didn't make happen. Strouse eventually quit and I ran IGN Machine for a while until I got pissed off at the guy in charge of it at the company. I'm forever grateful to G. for providing the first outside verification that I was actually good at this stuff (despite all the self-deprication, I am a writer and thus live for approval), but that's not really important right now. What's important is that I found my way to the IGN car board, and hung around.

Back in those days, the board software was weird but acceptable. It did have the feature of showing unread topics in bold and read ones in plain, which was impressive. This was the era of hierarchy-tree discussion groups, the mentality of which was carried over from Usenet directly (you can still this today in LiveJournal comments). Thanks to the killer content - not the Machine stuff, as much as I would like to think so, but the games stuff that brought people to the website - the boards were vibrant. An excellent community developed, and it was a great place to be.

Then, IGN came up with Insider.

Nowadays Insider only gives you an avatar and the ability to use tags. But when they introduced it, Insider was what gave you access to the boards. If you didn't pay, you couldn't go past the one messageboard they left open. This was infuriating. Fortunately, the Car board community got together, and we started our own place. It was called forcarenthusiasts.com, or FCE for short. The guy who ran it went through a few messageboard software packages, eventually settling on Invision.

And you know what? It was awesome. Invision is at this point the default choice forum software. It's a snap to install and set up, and it just works. It has avatars, post uploads, statistics, moderator functionality, basically anything and everything you could want. It's customizable - I've seen a hugely modified board based around Invision - and free.

And the IGN boards? Well, they still show unread topics in bold. Unfortunately, they were thrown together in a hurry some time before Y2K, and the company is unwilling to either overhaul the system or kill it in favor of something like Invision. It doesn't even have emoticon recognition, for god's sake; it will parse the standard smiley face and the winking face, but if you want something more complicated, you need to enter the tag. And it's not a simple tag like :rolleyes:, which is what every InvisionBoard user is familiar with, it's a monstrocity like [face_rolleyes]. Until very recently, you couldn't click on anything to insert a smiley face. No, you had to go to the Help files, find the right page (a non-trivial excercise), look for the smiley you want, and then type in the tag that matched it. This was also true for the simplest text formatting - bold, italic, underline, hyperlinks, image insert (Insider only!) and everything else was tag-based. You couldn't even quote a post - somebody built a special plugin for Firefox, just to be able to quote on the IGN boards!

They've added a formatting bar now, but it is a very obvious and painful hack thrown on top of an antiquated system. And, of course, it doesn't work in Opera.


Join me in Part II, where the nice folks from Gawker are the morons.


The Artist Formerly Known As The Machine Guy said...

Hah! Just because I was being paid to cough off phlegmy gobs of triviality that were (occasionally) vaguely releated to those with a fancy for motoring you imply that there was something trivial about the much!


BTW: I spent months pleading for a copy editor. For what that's worth. But that's American journalism for you.

Can you say, "Bend over" boys & girls?

I knew you could.

Cheeky bastard.

Keep it up.


Flasher T said...

Ah, nice to see you're still alive! :)


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