Help Us Beta Test OSNews Version 4

After a long development period, we’re ready to introduce the first “release candidate” of OSNews version 4. OSN4 is a very big change for us – for years, we’ve worked with the mantra “We render everywhere.” We are still using MySQL and PHP, like in Eugenia’s OSNews v2, but with the sudden prevalence of newer web technologies, we’ve decided that in order to really offer the best platform for our readers, it was time to enter a brave new world. Read on for details and the link. Updated: (“read more” to see update)

Redesigning OSNews was a challenge. We get email from people that describes their frustration with excessive page loads and missed coding opportunities. But get many readers who tell us that the simplicity of the site is what keeps them coming. The editors all agreed though, that if we were going to redesign the site, we were going to completely redesign it – from scratch. And that’s what we did. OSNews v4, completely and totally rewritten from scratch. You need a modern browser with javascript support to take full advantage of the site, which means many of our users on obscure browsers will be missing some critical features. Unfortunately, removing javascript severely limits us, and it’s required for full site use.

Let’s review some of the new features. First, and most notably, we have “Conversations.” Conversations are short blurbs that most users[1] can add for other users to comment on. OSNews rules say that conversation in the forums must be on-topic. Want to talk about the new Ubuntu? How about expected Leopard features? Want to take a tangential debate offline? You can start a conversation and talk about virtually anything, and not worry about affecting your account standing by getting down-modded for being off-topic. Please note that all conversations and conversation comments posted in the beta period will be deleted when we go live.

Secondly, a not-often requested feature that I personally see a need for and wanted: private messaging. We discussed, on our staff mailing list, the appropriate way to contact a user – do we just use the email they provided us? Do we post something to them? Now we have a way – private messages. PMs offer full functionality. Notifcation, a reply function, a full block list, etc. You can PM any active user who hasn’t blocked you. Yo ucan test the PM system now by sending me a private message during the beta test – the system is configured to auto-respond to PMs to me during the beta test. This is solely so that you can test the functionality of this feature. Note that I will actually receive the messages, so please keep the messages clean (or at least try to entertain me).

Thirdly – AJAX everywhere it made sense. Not overused – no superbloated javascript to slow down every page load and do the same thing we could do in a two lines otherwise. Javascript everywhere it makes sense, but nowhere else. Look for it with bookmarking, recommending, moderation, and starring.

Starring? Yes, I often find on other popular sites that I like to bookmark links to stories, links to comments, etc. So, like the bookmark, you can now “star” a story. Yes, I stole this idea from Gmail. Yes, it’s the same star. What’s the difference between recommending and starring? Think of recommending as telling other users “you should read this” and starring as a bookmark for yourself.

OSN4RSS. A lot of it. Seriously. Check out every user’s profile. Every users has about 6 custom feeds, and there are about 100 others for the main site. Please note that these feeds are only currently accessible if you change the URL to www4. However, do NOT subscribe to them yet, as the URL *will* change to when we go live.

CSS. A lot of it. Seriously. Since the site can be templated, we may be inclined at some point to offer multiple themes or just flat out replace the default one at some point.

Comment displays are now more flexible. You can view comments as flat, nested, or threaded. Furthermore, you can view all comments in one page, and you can even sort them by score. Comments below your threshold will inline but grayed out, and should you be tempted to read them anyway, you can drop them in place.

OSN4Speaking of comments, on replies, there is now a button that says “Quote Parent.” This allows you to place the text of a parent comment into [q] tags. As of right now, this is the proper way to quote a comment. The quoted comment will appear in its own field, clearly demonstrating that it is quoted text (see image on the right). You can begin to use the q tags RIGHT NOW; they are backported to v3 and will render as regular italics.

Avatars! Well, this is really in beta right now because I’m still playing with image resizing. Right now all images are converted into PNG by PHP, transparency is not supported, and images over 500K return a server error, but we’ll iron those issues out before rollout. Most standard, reasonably-sized images should work just fine. At first, this may seem unnecessary (and should you decide it is, you can turn them off in your preferences), but I’m telling you, after using v4 almost exclusively for several weeks now, they are great for identifying people’s comments.

OSN4Speaking of which, the people with whom you have a relationship (either a friend of yours, a fan of yours, or both) will have comments colored differently than everyone else to quickly draw your attention. Your own comments will be a garish green – until I replace it with a better background. Let’s look at the image to the left. Notice the friend is green, the fan is yellow, the mutual friend is orange, and the regular comments are a nice light green wave.

We got polls! Although we don’t have any real polls visible yet, v4 supports native polling, which was long overdue. We are using jpgraph to generate graphs. Neat stuff.

News tags. Once in awhile, something will come up like MacWorld, WWDC, WinHEC, etc, where several articles will be logically grouped together. For right now, each article can have a keyword and clicking the keyword will bring you to that group. For the time being, here is an example: Meta.

Headlines are integrated into the sidebar. For now, we offer three feeds: the OSN Staff Blog, OSGalaxy,
and Gnomefiles.

We built a much needed, greatly expanded search. Want to find your old comments from the days before registration? So did I. Click the “Advanced Search” link in the sidebar to explore our search facility.

Advertisements are integrated throughout the site, and everyone sees them while in beta. When I take the beta flag off, they will disappear for subscribers. I also intend to offer subscribers some other goodies in the future, such as free ice cream with each visit. Well, okay, we can’t offer that, but we’re looking into other features.

We’re very excited to hear your thoughts on OSNews v4. We’ve had several users testing it and providing feedback, and thus far, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Please use the comments in this thread to discuss OSNews 4, not the Conversations section (although you can use that too, but let’s keep the discussion in one place). Feel free to test Private Messaging with me, as my account will automatically reply to you.

So, without further ado, OSNews, version 4 Beta.

[1] There are several criteria to judge if you’re elligible to start a conversation, detailed on the start conversation page. If you can’t post, it will tell you why.

Update: Let me address two issues: First, the graphic design of the v4 site as it stands is not finalized, so don’t spend too much time fretting over it. For the purposes of this testing, we’re primarily concerned with how the whole system works, so try out the new features and check out the old ones. Second, some people have pointed out that the new site uses Javascript, CSS, and other newfangled stuff that will make some alternative, antique, mobile, or otherwise weird browsers puke. Don’t you worry about that! Before we take this site live, we’ll make sure that every OSNews reader gets a clean, readable version of the site, no matter what browser they’re using. Thanks — David Adams, Publisher.


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