Classic VB Corner

VB Community Transition

As Microsoft shuts down its newsgroup server, the community resource lives on. You just need to know where to look for it.

In early May, Microsoft began posting a series of notices to their newsgroups that they intended to shutdown the servers. The posts were titled "Microsoft Responds to the Evolution of Community," but what was happening was a bit more proactive than that:

Starting in early summer 2010, Microsoft will begin progressively closing down the Microsoft public newsgroups to enrich conversations in the rapidly-growing forum platform.

Yes, people are moving to web forums and newsgroups are languishing a bit. The Web is, after all, what users and corporations know best. When Microsoft first "discovered" the Internet, they pulled their support options from CompuServe in 1996 and set up their own support communities using what was the state of the art at the time -- newsgroups. They established their own server farm (msnews.microsoft.com) and group hierarchy (microsoft.public).

From the user perspective, this turned out to be a very good decision indeed. Newsgroups offer tremendous flexibility, primarily because you don't have to be connected to the Internet to use them. They can be used, just as the old navigator programs accessed CompuServe, in a more hit and run manner. Your reader can just grab all the new posts, which you then read and respond to at your leisure, before your reader makes another pass uploading your posts and downloading new posts by others.

The Web forum model completely destroys that mode of operation. With Web forums, you must be connected all the time, and most generally you'll be in the familiar click-wait-click-wait mode we're all familiar with on the Web.

Newsgroup readers also allow you to easily track which posts you've already read, mark entire threads as read so they effectively come off your reading list, mark threads to be watched so you know right away when new posts are made to them, notify you when someone has responded to one of your posts directly, and many similar tricks. Web forums attempt to emulate some of these, and generally fail at that task.

So why do corporations tend to prefer Web forums as support venues? It's very simple, really. On the Web, the server owner owns all the content. If an unpopular position is espoused, it can be removed. If flamewars break out, the malcontents can be banned. And of course there's the potential for advertising, be it ads for your own products or for third-party products and services, this motive is very strong as well.

And it's this last point that makes newsgroups so attractive to users. The news is unfiltered by corporate interests. Generally, though of course not always, people posting are doing so for their own (often altruistic) goals. You won't be told to use an inappropriate tool, just to further an unspoken corporate agenda.

The single biggest strike against Microsoft's new Web forums, for the Classic VB community, is they have hung signs all over the place telling us to GO AWAY! I kid you not. Notice that not one of their suggestions on "Where to post your VB6 questions" points to a Microsoft operated resource. But this attitude seems to extend mainly to English speaking customers, for some reason. Microsoft does offer Classic VB forums for their Spanish, French, and German speaking customers. Go figure.

The Groups Live On!
The real beauty of newsgroups though, is how different servers operate in concert, replicating posts around the world. Collectively known as usenet, this may be the oldest computer network communications system still in widespread use. Usenet consists of numerous subject hierarchies, each further subdivided into progressively more specific subject newsgroups. Usenet servers around the world can act as peers with one another, "flooding" articles out to all network neighbors as they arrive, propagating them across the globe.

What this means is, it doesn't matter that Microsoft turned its servers off! The microsoft.public hierarchy (m.p.*) lives on across usenet! All you need to access the newsgroups you were familiar with on msnews is an account with another news provider and your old trusty newsreader. There was a time when most ISPs provided news servers as a standard feature of their service, though that is becoming less and less common. There remain a number of other access points to usenet, and many of them are free.

Typically, news server admins will consider dropping groups as their participation dwindles. Most big carriers still offer the microsoft.public hierarchy, so it's important that folks know about this and take advantage of it to keep these groups alive. For example, the largest gathering point for the Classic VB community is currently the m.p.vb.general.discussion group, which is very unlikely to disappear. Some of the more esoteric groups, such as m.p.vb.ole.servers, may just wither and die off.

Regardless, all along there has existed the comp.lang hierarchy. In fact, this hierarchy existed well before Microsoft entered the news game, and will likely be there until the the protocol dies off entirely. My suggestion is that all the Classic VB usenet traffic focus in on the comp.lang.basic.visual.misc group if/when the m.p hierarchy vanishes. Other communities abandoned in this loss of support may also want to start batting about and then publicizing where to regroup as well.

Resources
As I said earlier, very few ISPs still provide newsgroup access. But there are numerous free and paid usenet providers you can hook up with. The main difference with the paid access offerings is they tend to also carry the alt.binaries hierarchy, while the free ones are limited to text only groups. My current favorite for free access would be eternal-september.org, which does require an account (to prevent abuse). Another popular offering is aioe.org, which doesn't even require registration.

You may also have noticed that Outlook Express is no longer offered by Microsoft on their more recent operating systems. Moving to Windows 7 forced my own hand on this count, and I've been using the MesNews newsreader ever since. It's what Outlook Express could have been, and more. MesNews is written in Delphi, so it's completely standalone, and can even be run off a memory stick. The only drawback, as is frequently the case with free software, is the sparse documentation. Don't let that dissuade you! This one's a treat to use once you get past the initial setup.

See you in comp.lang.basic.visual.misc?

About the Author

Karl E. Peterson wrote Q&A, Programming Techniques, and various other columns for VBPJ and VSM from 1995 onward, until Classic VB columns were dropped entirely in favor of other languages. Similarly, Karl was a Microsoft BASIC MVP from 1994 through 2005, until such community contributions were no longer deemed valuable. He is the author of VisualStudioMagazine.com's new Classic VB Corner column. You can contact him through his Web site if you'd like to suggest future topics for this column.

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