Jeff Atwood, of StackOverflow fame, made a bit of a jab at the classic Web-based forum. Maybe it's well deserved, and certainly criticism I've levied before, but he's right that forums are still as popular as ever for communities of every shape and size. That's actually kind of weird when you think about it. Facebook has not displaced the niche Web site, and especially the communities that inhabit them.
His post actually went on to announce an open source forum project called Discourse. Running my own open source project, POP Forums, naturally I thought, "Finally, I can stop building this stuff!" I mean, if it's "next-generation," it's gotta be good, right?
Well, maybe not so much. I like some of the components of the user interface, in that it tends to strip down to the bare minimum required to conduct conversation. I've always been a fan of that. I just don't see a lot that makes me think they're taking it to a new level. Part of that is because a simple hierarchy that ends in a list of posts is already pretty simple and easy to understand.
There are some things that I don't think they've thought very hard enough about. Even though Atwood considers that he finds so many useful things in forums, how do you think he got there? Discoverability by search engines, of course. The continuous stream of loading stuff is obvious, since it's what Facebook does, and my forum does it (requiring a button push, but it's inline loading), but the paging is a useful construct for Google to find stuff. That's why I do both paging and inline loading.
I'm also not a big fan of using "markdown" in post composition. Sure, people who grew up with Usenet or work on a command line dig it, but average users hate it. Everything they use has a WYSIWYG editor now. Why go backward? People in my forums can't even figure out how to use quote tags... how do you expect them to use markdown?
Interestingly, they want to make that forum app a business in the spirit of Wordpress. That's not a horrible idea, but a lot of services have come and gone doing hosted forums. For one reason or another, the bulk of the use seems to be more of the DIY crowd, with a few companies doing huge forums for big companies. It will be interesting to see how it goes for them.
As for building something "next-generation," I think mostly that means being more real-time. A few months ago I started baking in all kinds of real-time stuff with the projected release of v1 of SignalR. It was supposed to be by the end of 2012, but it's still not a final, supported release. I've got real-time updates to the forum pages and what not, and it's really pretty cool. I'm concurrently trying to improve the design and have sketched a lot of things, but I'm not sure how much of that will make it into v11. I admittedly am more interested in the engineering.
Reinventing the forum is something I used to want to do, but I think in more recent years I've come to realize that reinvention is less important than sensible evolution. UBB came out something like 15 years ago, and I think forums have gone through a pretty solid maturing process. I'm interested to see where Discourse goes, but I'm not convinced it really goes anywhere particularly new.