Some Good (and not so good) Software for your Web Site
On this page, I will summarize my experiences with acquiring, installing and usingvarious software packages on web sites.
Recommendations from Other People
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SEARCHING FOR CHAT SOFTWARE
I have a client who uses chat software for an online course. The current software package is phpMyChat by PHPHeaven. This program uses a MySQL database, and is on a database server running an old version of MySQL. The web hosting company will be taking that version of MySQL off their servers because of security reasons. So, we need to start a new database to run the chat software. However, as part of the process, it would be good to reconsider the software too.
Step 1: See if there is an upgrade to the existing software, which has worked just fine for the last several years. The software is still available, but how recent is it? I found a review of phpMyChat from 2006 and realized that I hadn't been thinking about some details, namely, the chat program files being in php3. Ooops! The software was written in 2001. Now, the current version of PHP is 5. So, not only is the database out of date, the programming is too. Is an upgrade available? No! So, the next step is to consider new software.
Step 2: Search for new chat software. Besides using the PHP scripting language, another requirement is that the software is free or very low charge. (Keep in mind, however, that sometimes your "free" software will cost you more in work charges down the road.)
FACTS Management Company
FACTS has an online system to help private schools determine the tuition they should charge each student when there is a sliding scale tuition plan.
The following is my own experience with FACTS
- Previously, another family member filled out the online forms. There were a whole lot of complaints about not being able to go back and make changes, but being a typical arrogant geek, I figured it was just user error. This year, it gave the system a go and learned my mistake in judgment!
- First, I tried Google because I couldn't remember the URL. It took me to a page that would not let me get the login information from previous years, and it wouldn't let me register because I didn't have some internal numbers they need.
- Tech support gave me an address to go to.
- When I went to that address, it went to a computer services site, not to FACTS.
- I called tech support again, and was told that the www is required for their site. The technical department needs to go to user interface class and realize that to most computer users the two methods of typing an address should result in the same web site being accessed. Always remember that it's not the user's problem if you have some weird internal stuff!
- When I finally got into the right pages, I found that their forms are well designed and easy to understand.
- However, I needed to get the social security number for one student. So, the logical user action was to save the form to come back to it later.
- Apparently, this company doesn't understand that databases have Insert, Delete and Update functions. I can Add a Student and Delete a Student. There is no Update function for students. Maybe I'm the only person in the world that would ever need to go back and add or correct info later???? Even a message that "YOU CAN'T COME BACK TO THIS FORM LATER!" would have been a help.
- I had to call tech support a number of times. They were generally knowledgeable and helpful, but they don't have a system to say, "That is an excellent suggestion for improving our site. I will send that to our technical department."
PayPal Web Site and Support
This one is really sad. I have one contact who has had a fine experience with PayPal. However, what happens if you have questions or something goes wrong?
Here is my experience trying to talk to PayPal about their shopping cart in response to a client request. I had to make the call because the web site wasn't exactly forthcoming with a link to a shopping cart demo.
- I went to PayPal.com to find a phone number
- When I went to their web page, I clicked Help and Contact Us. Their site assumes that I am trying to work my other client's account and will not allow me to get to the page with the phone number - it just pops up the login page. I spent about 10 minutes playing ring-around-the-rosie with this one!
- I did a Google search for a PayPal phone number and got a site called PayPalSucks.com - they have plenty of phone numbers. They also have some very interesting articles on their site. http://www.paypalsucks.com/paypalfan.shtml
- I called Todd in business development from the phone number list. Todd did not want to talk to me about how difficult it is to use their site, but he did direct me to click to the Business tab to find the phone numbers. This worked where Help and Contact Us hadn't.
- I called the phone number for sales. I tried to explain that I need shopping cart information for a client (letting them know ahead of time that I am a serious inquiry.) However, to start - and test their service, I tried to explain to him that I had quite a bit of difficulty getting to sales with PayPal. He insisted that their phone number is on their home page, and I couldn't have missed it. I've attached a couple of screenshots of their home page. Click the links below to see what I see on the PayPal home page. When I told him I didn't see the phone numbers, he pushed just some buttons that sent me to customer server that asked me for a user name and password! Looks like Sales isn't much into helping a potential customer with a legitimate problem!
Top of PayPal page
Bottom of PayPal page
- They may have a great service if everything goes well, but I'm wondering if they are so great if there is a problem.
- So, I tried filling out feedback on their web site. I filled in all the fields, but the form keeps coming back that there is an error, with no explanation of what the error is - other than that the Question field is red. I typed information in that field, but it won't take it. So, no matter how much I want to resolve the question - they do not provide the opportunity.
This is an excellent, yet very simple program written by Greg Lawler.
Some GREAT Features:
- It's FREE!
- It's very easy to install (relative to other web software.)
- It's PHP, with no database. No database means that there is another technical feature you don't have to worry about. All the photo files are just kept in the same folder with the program files.
- You don't have to understand the programming or any other coding to make it work. However, there are changes you may want to make that will require an understanding of HTLM and CSS. You also have to be willing to experiment with unfamiliar files to make the changes. Remember, if you mess it up, you can just extract another copy of the files from the ZIP file! PHP is relatively easy to learn, and no database means there's not another feature to maintain.
- There are only 4 files (other than the photos) to keep track of: the template, the PHP file, the file containing the Title and the file containing the list of photos. And, you can skip the last two, if you don't care about the title or captions.
- The coding is so clean and simple that I can use it as a code and installation example in my Dreamweaver 1 class.
I hope that everyone who uses this software will send Greg the coffee cards, as he mentions in the PHP file!
A forum is software that allows for member posting. That means that other people can add items to your web site, such as comments, questions, and news. PHPBB has
This program is much more complicated than Zinkwazi, and you may need some help installing it, if you are new at installing software on web sites. However, the functionality is worth the time. Besides using the program as a forum, you can use it as an archive for newsy articles about your topic.
Some GREAT Features:
- It's FREE!
- The folks on the support forum are absolutely, amazingly wonderful about answering questions.
- It's PHP with MySQL. The programming comes with a set up feature. If you have your database account set up with your web host, the set up feature will build the database for you. All you need is to give the program some information about your account.
- You control the set up and configuration through an Administrative panel.
- Some very generous programmers have created modifications - for FREE - that they make available on the web site. I didn't like the colors and layout of the original forum; so, I downloaded a "skin" that made the colors and look more in line with the site I created. The forum was getting hit by so many spammers it was eating up my hours trying to dump the spammers, but keep the real users. A programmer put up a great modification that made it easy for me to dump the spammers.
Advanced Graph and Chart Collection for PHP
I was looking for a program that could take changing data and create charts on the fly, using the most recent data. Not only is this program relatively easy to use (not as easy as Zinkwazi, but easier than PHPBB), the support for questions was excellent!!!
Some GREAT Features:
- There are great online tutorials and working examples. And, they make it perfectly clear that they welcome questions.
- You can download and use a demo for FREE! True, the resulting graphs have "demo" text on them, but that's what a demo is for.
- The file was provided in a Zip format, which can be unpacked easily on any Windows XP machine. This might seem like a trivial thing, but it's a real pain to get on a client's computer and have to install a decompression program before you can unpack a piece of software. As far as the client knows, you are just a bumbling incompetent that is pushing the blame off.
- They will answer questions about things you need to set in your web server, that really aren't their problem. All software has to exist peacefully on your computer and/or on a web server. The web server has to provide the resources/infrastructre that the software needs. For example, your car needs roads, gas stations, and mechanics available. Without these, a car wouldn't be worth much. Web software needs server resources, in this case, the server must be running PHP with a number of specific features turned on. Pat O'Brien of JPowered was happy to give me more than enough information on what I needed to do to get the PHP configuration set up correctly to run the graphing program.
One way to tell a really good software company is whether they provide the hardware and software support information you need to set up the program - not just run it after it's set up. #3 is related to this same issue.
- There is configuration file that gives you all kinds of options on how your particular chart/graph looks. Because the configuration is separate from the PHP file, you don't have to work your way through a bunch of code to figure out where to make changes. This does take some experimentation, but I was able to set up a couple of test charts in an hour. Not only that, but with an hour of PHP programming and testing, I was able to take data that wasn't in the format the JPowered needs; separate and reformat the data on the fly; and get a dynamic chart going. Whenever a new data set is uploaded to the web space - the viewer will see a current chart!
I can't wait to try all the charting options. But there are so many, I be retired before I get through them.
This one takes a bit of explaining. If you have software on your web site that has a MySQL database, sometimes you have to do a "dump." That's Geek for getting all the database design and data out. Sometimes you need to do this as a backup. Sometimes you might have a reason to rebuild your database. In my case, I needed to rebuild my PHPBB forum because I had done a great job of messing up some files on an upgrade. Well, there were all kinds of issues with trying to get the data to import into my brand spanking new database. I was spending all kinds of time fussing with a slow client computer and PHPMyAdmin. I was having to rebuild little piece by little piece. Then I found out about MySQLDumper. It definitely reduced my stress!!! The program gets the dump and sends it to the database of your choice.
Some GREAT Features:
- It's FREE!
- I sent the author a thank you email, and he responded! It wasn't even a plea for help, just a simple thank you.
- Near as I can tell, the guys that wrote it are German. Instead of making me get out my junior high German textbook - which I have, by the way, but it's a little short on computer terms - they have their work translated into English, Spanish and French by some other great guys. Now that's service!
- I downloaded, installed and figured out how to use it in about an hour! If other software companies follow that example, there won't be any more need for computer application teachers.
ImTOO - Video Ripper
This piece of software isn't installed on your web site, but is a program that helps you reformat your company's videos for your web site.
Background: if you have a video created that shows some aspect of your business, that video might work wonderfully on a CD or DVD, but the format may not be correct for web delivery. For a video to work for your web viewers, it has to be in one file that is a format that is in a format that can be opened by a browser plugin, such as the Windows Media Player. One such file type is .mpg. You can find out what format your video is in by right clicking on Start; go to My Computer; click once on the CD/DVD icon in the left panel. If you see a folder called VIDEO_TS, your videos is probably in a group of files that work together on your computer, but not on the web.
Some GREAT Features:
- It's inexpensive for software!
- The staff is very responsive when you email questions.
- The interface is pretty simple.
IDX Real Estate Listing Software
This software is used by Multiple Listing Services. There was not one thing positive with my experience with either the company or the software. A real estate business in Missoula asked me to put MLS listings on their site. Contacting the MLS office got me access to an FTP site with the data files of the listings, but no description of the software; clue what type of files were inside the compressed files; or any other introduction to the software. I called Paragon, the company that sold the software, and they couldn't/wouldn't tell me anything either since I was neither the MLS service nor the real estate broker.
The functions of a piece of software can be written in many ways that will result in a piece of software that works. Good service and good documentation are what makes one company stand out over another. The two pieces of freeware above provide both. I'm sure that IDX is a very expensive piece of software. They should have online support.
After doing a Google search for general information, it seems that there are quite a few third party software companies that write software for this program. It's difficult to say whether the folks I spoke to weren't helpful, or whether this is normal for this company. All it would have taken was being told a web site where I could go to for a picture of the overall structure and functions of the software.
The end result is that The Computer Gal got to look like a real incompetent - and the "former" client let me know so! Neither the real estate agent nor the MLS service saw the lack of documentation as any problem. A smart man once said to me that computers will make a fool out of you every time!