David Mytton

Interview – Matt Mecham of IPS

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With years of experience creating professional and well known forum software, Invision Power Services provide one of the top forum packages available to website owners. Famous for the extremely widely used Invision Power Board, Invision Power Services not only develop the major contender to vBulletin and phpBB but also offer numerous other services and products to compliment their community building product.

I obtained the opportunity to interview the co-founder, CEO and Lead Developer of IPS, Matt Mecham, to ask some detailed questions about his products, how he works and the future of the web community.

1. Firstly, Matt, can you tell us a little about yourself, and your involvement with the Invision Board development team? What first got you into software development and what is your programming background? What got you into developing Web-based applications? 

Sure, I’m 27 years old living with my fiancée in the east of the UK. I am the co-owner and CEO of Invision Power Services. I tend to focus on the product development side of the business. I am the sole developer of Invision Power Board and that occupies most of my working day currently as I’m working on the new version.

I’ve always been working with computers. I was writing simple BASIC programs when I was about 9 and I’ve been writing code pretty much since then. I started writing modifications for a freeware bulletin board back in 1999. I picked up a working knowledge of Perl which led me onto writing my own bulletin board as I wasn’t satisfied with the current market. Ikonboard was released in 2000 and I haven’t looked back since!

2. How long has IPS been running and what made you decide to start developing a forum system such as IPB? Did it just start off as a few people working on a small system? How do you manage such a large project now? Does everyone work in an office or is it entirely web based?

Invision Power Services was created in February 2002. Charles Warner and I were both working for the company which acquired Ikonboard and we weren’t happy with the direction the company was heading so we both moved on to create our own company. I started writing IBForums, which was later renamed to Invision Power Board, as I felt I still had some more to add to the bulletin board market and as we had a lot of experience in that area it seemed the sensible thing to do. IPS was selling hosting packages and other services during the time that IPB was being developed.

Charles is based in the US and I’m based in the UK. We try and meet up in person as much as possible and we’re always in phone contact. Our four hour marathon phone calls are legendary – especially with our telephone providers!

We have dedicated offices in the UK and US. The US team work in the US office and keep in contact with the UK team via phone, web and in person as often as possible.

3. When did you first come across PHP and what made you select it, over other technologies such as ASP and JSP or even Perl/CGI, for the development of IPB? What is it that you like so much about PHP?

I wrote Ikonboard in Perl as PHP 3 wasn’t developed enough at the time. Perl is a great language but it’s contorted to run in a CGI process and as such it’s very touchy and very fussy. I started writing Invision Power Board in PHP because it seemed the way forward – PHP 4 was out and installed on most web servers and Perl hadn’t been updated in a long while. PHP is a nice, neat and tidy scripting language and it has a lot of useful built in functions, such as GD, DB access, etc. It’s very easy to pick up and very forgiving.

4. How do you prefer to work when developing? Long hours broken up by long breaks, steady daily progress, or otherwise? Can you offer any tips to PHP developers with that feeling “24 hours a day just isn’t enough”?

24 hours a day isn’t enough! I work at least 5 days a week 9 hours a day, and I try to get online for a few hours each evening to keep up to date. I usually work the 9 hours as one big block only stopping for coffee breaks. The biggest piece of advice there is for PHP developers is to save often and back-up even more often.

5. Is IPB/IPS a full time job? When you’re not coding or managing the project, how do you like to spend your time? Does programming impact on your social life in any way?

Invision Power Services is my full time job. After working for most of my life for other people I feel very lucky to be able to not only do something I enjoy for a living, but also to work for myself. Since my fiancée and I moved in together I try and keep my work separate from my home life as much as possible. It’s important to enjoy ‘real’ life as much as I enjoy my work.

6. What are your favourite development tools (e.g. text editors, project management, source code maintenance)? What operating system do you use most and why?

I’m a big Mac fan. I’ve been using Macintosh since the days of the all-in-one monochrome SE30. I use a 17″ 1ghz G4 iMac for my main development machine. That’s plugged into a router which also feeds my older G3 iMac which acts as my development server and it also powers my Airport which keeps my iBook connected to the net and the other machines. This allows me to centralize all my development files and work from anywhere I have an internet connection. All my Macs run OS X. I use BBEdit for my code work and Mozilla for surfing and previewing the development work. I prefer Macs only because I’m more comfortable with them.

7. IPB is hot on the heels of vBulletin 3 (which has just gone gold) and is used on many huge websites. What advantages and features does IPB have over the other systems currently available? Why do you think IPB is the best choice of forum software?

Invision Power Services is more than just a one product company. We have different options to cater for just about every community need. We can host your board for you or you can download it for yourself. We have integrated chat available, an integrated spell checker and a gallery in the final stages of development. We offer a complete support service with the purchase price, this includes phone support at no extra cost, email ticket support, live chat support and customer forum based support. IPB is developed and managed by a ‘real’ company with a huge area of expertise. Our customers, which include Sony, AMD and Yahoo!, have the confidence of knowing that they can rely on us and no matter what time of the day it is, they can pick up the phone and speak to us. IPB is also developed very quickly and directly in-line with our customer requests and ideas. We have a good combined knowledge of the market and practical experience in building and maintaining large active communities.

8. You offer IPB free as an ‘unlimited trial’. Originally, it was free with no description as a trial. What made you decide to offer a paid for version? Why still offer the free one?

We set out to create a solid company from the get-go. To be taken seriously in this industry you have to offer more than a free product. Free will only get you so far. Most businesses will not risk a ‘free’ product as they often come with bad support and if something goes wrong, there is no come back. Our purchase plans have been very successful because it offers the best of both worlds – a free product that has professional quality support. We’ve recently taken steps to allow our product to be taken more seriously. IPB is a quality product which the price tag doesn’t justify. We believe that a free trial is a good way to “try before you buy” and still offers a viable community platform to charities and other non-profit organisations. We have refocused our business model to accommodate our growing number of customers and to expand our commercial services which vary from forum hosting to virtual ISP accounts offering dial-up and DSL services.

9. IPB 2.0 has just been released in several public beta versions at time of writing, what aims did you have for the project when you first set out from version 1 to version 2? Did you have any inspiration for the system?

IPB 2.0 was always going to be our ‘big’ release. The first series helped build a customer base and establish us as a serious contender in this market. We’ve built on that solid foundation for v2.0 and we’ve built a professional product that has everything you need to run a community. It’s packed with features yet its our most efficient release to date – it’s something we’re very excited about. Inspiration comes from all kinds of places. The most obvious is what I like to call ‘feature pollination’. Board X has a certain feature and it’s noted by some as a good idea. Eventually someone will come to us and request the same feature. It’s part of the natural evolution of a product and its genre.

10. Do you think that a forum is an essential part of a big website? What benefits do you think that having a forum can give website owners?

Absolutely yes. The web is developing rapidly and it’s already a different place to what it was a few short years ago. Most sites now are capturing the potential that multi-media has to offer. Early websites were static brochures adapted from printed material and offered little to no audience interaction. A forum is a great tool to build brand loyalty or a fan base for your services or products and it’s a great tool to build an interactive FAQ and support knowledge-base. A good active forum can breathe life into an otherwise static site and make it look like the site is updated and used regularly.

11. What are your plans for the future in regards to IPB? And how will it develop after the initial release? Do you plan on developing new features or branch out into a new product area?

IPB is just getting started. We’re established now with a solid business with a good business model that allows for future growth. Invision Power Board is at the centre of our community building products. We have a content management system under development which is due for a public airing shortly and it takes advantage of our “converge” framework which unifies user log-in information to enable a single log-in to be used throughout a site and throughout different IPS products. Converge can also tie different IPB communities together. I feel that we’re at the beginning of a new generation of community tools. The days of a standalone forum are numbered, it’s all about simple integration with a single log-in. We see a forum as a slot-in component of a suite of community and content products. We’ve recognised that and so have Infopop, who have recently put their single log-in system on trial.

12. PHP5 is coming up on the horizon and with that, a much more streamlined language pointed in the direction of object orientated programming. What do you see as the web based product for the future? How do you think the web, and the people developing for it, will change?

I don’t think the tool can change the concepts and aims of a product. Having said that, PHP5 offers a much cleaner coding environment and the potential for a modular framework system that allows modifications to be integrated at the root which is exciting. I’m definitely looking forward to applying my Perl-ish OOP knowledge to PHP5.

13. Finally, is there anything else you would like to add or say?

Thanks for asking me to take part in this interview!