Note: This was originally published on bastecklein.com back on March 29, 2015. I am reposting it here for historical purposes, and so I do not forget about the sad death of my awesome Forum Fiend app. The experience remains relevant today, as it is one of the primary reasons why I am writing my own forum software (this website) as opposed to using one of the many pre-built packages that are out there.
So this week has been pretty hectic for me, as I have been in the middle of moving into a new house. Friday afternoon I was back at the old house with a handyman fixing things up to get the old house ready to put up on the market, when the FedEx guy shows up at my front door carrying an overnight envelope from Tapatalk, Inc. Inside was a cease and desist letter regarding Forum Fiend, a mobile app for Android and Windows Phone that I had been developing since fall 2013.
Back in 2010, one of my very first mobile apps was a mobile forum for Android called World of Warcraft Discussion. The forum was accessible through Android-only, there was no web component to it at all, and the back-end server side code was all custom written by me. The app was really not designed to be a full-fledged forum in the beginning, but as it gained more users and the community grew, people started asking for more features, and eventually the app sort of morphed into a fully functional mobile forum.
Leveraging the World of Warcraft Discussion code, I released several more mobile forum apps covering all different types of topics, from video games, to body building, to home cooking. Eventually I had something like 20 or more different mobile forum communities out there, all running off of my own custom built software. There were logistical problems associated with this though. Every time I wanted to update the core code, I had to go through and make updates to 20+ different apps. It was a major pain. I finally ended up merging all of the forum communities into one single app called Discussions.
Discussions ran pretty good from a technical standpoint for the next year and a half, but eventually the database got so large that I started running into a whole slew of technical problems. Looking back, the problems were probably due to the shared hosting server that I was using, but at the time I thought that it was my forum software that was the bottleneck. I decided to switch the forum community over to the open source phpBB forum system. The problem was that most of the users of the forum accessed it using the mobile app, so I needed a way to keep my mobile users happy. I needed a way for my Discussions app to interface with my phpBB forum. That is when I discovered the Tapatalk API.
The Tapatalk API
Back in summer 2013, I learned about the Tapatalk API and started researching how to convert my Discussions app to interface with it so that I could maintain my own mobile forum reader for my forum’s users. Back then, the Tapatalk API was completely open source, and their terms of service were extremely lax, so it was a perfect fit for my needs. I found the Tapatalk API to be extremely capable, and after a few iterations of the app, I pretty much had Discussions back up to par with where it was before switching it over to phpBB. At this point, I got the idea in my head to take my code to the next level and introduce a brand new app out into the wild: Forum Fiend.
With my Discussions app fully functional and running off of the Tapatalk API, I realized that I basically had a fully functional forum reader app that could be made compatible with pretty much any forum system out there that was using the widespread Tapatalk API. All I had to do was make a handful of minor changes, as my Discussions app had my own server address hard-coded all over the place. The first third-party forum I tried to use with my own code was the xda-developers forums. It basically worked right off of the bat, with only minor alterations needing to be made. I then tried a couple of others that I knew of, and much to my surprise, they all mostly just worked. I really have to hand it to the Tapatalk API devs. At this point, I slapped a new intro screen onto the app that allowed users to enter in their own server addresses and I released Forum Fiend out into the wild, an app that started out years ago as a small and limited World of Warcraft Discussion board.
As the months went on and updates and improvements were made to Forum Fiend, I started to get an increasing number of requests from forum owners about operating a Build Your Own (BYO) forum app service. Tapatalk offers forum owners a BYO app service, but they charge something outlandish for it, like $90 straight up plus $60 per month (I don’t remember the exact figures). Most forum owners probably don’t even make that much on their forums. In fact, most forums are probably operating at a loss, so these prices are just out of the ballpark for a lot of people. So after a lot of prodding from the forum owner community, I decided to announce plans to offer my own BYO forum app service based on Forum Fiend, for a one-time fee of $39.99, plus a $5.99 charge if they want to make updates to the latest release down the line. As it turns out, this move was a colossal mistake.
Tapatalk API Terms of Service
Sometime last fall, I got an e-mail from Eric Sternbach at Tapatalk requesting to set up a phone call regarding my use of the Tapatalk API Terms of Service. I was initially unsure of what the issue was, since I had read their terms of service before, and it was basically just a couple of sentences long stating that they don’t care what you do with their API. So I headed over to the Tapatalk website, and lo and behold, their terms of service had been transformed into a lengthy (and less friendly) lawyer written document (you can read them here). After reading them, I was pretty sure Tapatalk was just going to try stomping out Forum Fiend right then and there, so I set up a phone appointment with Mr. Sternbach and waited to hear his demands.
The phone call did not go as bad as I had expected, and Mr. Sternbach was actually a pretty cool guy. He said that he really didn’t have much of an issue with Forum Fiend on it’s face, but the announcement of the BYO service in direct competition with theirs put Tapatalk in a tough spot from a business standpoint, which I totally understand. I agreed to axe my plans for a BYO service. He also mentioned the possibility of me somehow working together with Tapatalk on Forum Fiend, or with Tapatalk possibly owning the rights to the app while letting me continue to develop it, but nothing more ever came of those ideas.
So the months went on, I discontinued my BYO service, and I never heard from Tapatalk again. Eventually, after several more updates to the Forum Fiend app, I decided that the project was finally mature enough, and that I had spent about all of the time on it that I wanted to. From a business standpoint, I never really made much money off of Forum Fiend, and it wasn’t really worth my time to continue active development on it. At this point, I made the decision to release Forum Fiend as an open source project on Github and allow the community to continue it’s development (if they wanted to). This would also theoretically allow forum owners to create their own BYO apps for free, provided they had some level of competence in Android development.
I was not sure how this would be received by Tapatalk, or if they would even notice/care. I know that they were against me offering to create and sell BYO forum apps for other people, and I totally get that. However, I thought that simply putting the source code out there wouldn’t be as big of an issue since really, nobody besides other developers would even know what to do with it. Although, I guess it would be possible for other devs to show up and start trying to establish competing businesses based off of the Forum Fiend code. That might have been what Tapatalk guessed also, because Friday is when FedEx delivered their official cease and desist letter, which you can read below.
I guess at the end of the day, this whole ordeal with Tapatalk is an easy way to get the Forum Fiend project off of my hands for good. I do like the app and I have gotten a lot of support from a lot of good people over it, but the return on investment for the project is nowhere near good enough to try to go up against Tapatalk.
The only part that really bums me out over the situation, is that they demand that I discontinue all use of their API, not just Forum Fiend. I take this to also include my own personal forum communities that I am involved with, such as the aforementioned Discussions, and the highly popular Role Playing Forums. While Role Playing Forums is a large forum community and does make enough money to cover the costs of an official Tapatalk BYO app, Discussions most certainly does not. It doesn’t really matter either way, as I would certainly not pay for their BYO prices, even if my forums made $10,000,000 per month.
Anyway, this puts me in a position where I have to make a decision about the future of Role Playing Forums. I could dust off my old custom forum code, update and modernize it, and try to run the entire thing from scratch again. This would be time consuming though, and I would really prefer to work on my other projects that are actually bringing in a high level of income. For now, I have just instructed the RP Forums users to switch to the official Tapatalk app. I will have to think about this one more in the future.
My Thoughts on Tapatalk
So there is the story of how my Forum Fiend app was born and how it died. Truthfully I am not upset with Tapatalk about the situation, and I understand their side of the issue from a business perspective. The only part that really sucks from my standpoint was the stealth change in the Tapatalk API Terms of Service which came about after I had already sunk probably hundreds of hours or more into my Forum Fiend app. My app was totally compliant with the Tapatalk terms, and it seems like they only changed once I started musing the idea of a competing BYO app. Of course, realistically they may not have even known that Forum Fiend existed at the time they created their terms, but from my standpoint it looks suspiciously like they created them as a direct target against my project.
Again though, I am not anti-Tapatalk. I believe that what happened behind the scenes is that Tapatalk grew up from a small developer-focused project (like Forum Fiend was) to a larger business-focused project. It’s a pretty standard course for any project that sees the amount of success that Tapatalk has. I think it sucks that I can’t work with the Tapatalk API anymore (since I have put quite a bit of time into it and I have become pretty well versed in it), but truthfully I have so many other projects going on right now that it will probably ultimately end up being for the best.
From a business standpoint, I do have to hand it to the guys at Tapatalk and what they are trying to do. With the latest builds of their mobile client, they are essentially trying to create their own social network while offloading all of the server maintenance, administration, and financial costs onto the individual forum owners. I believe that if they are able to strike the right balance and keep the forum owners happy enough, they will probably be moderately successful for some time to come.
Really, making money in forums is pretty much a crap shoot these days, but I think that the guys at Tapatalk have come up with one of the only ways to make it a viable business. And Tapatalk actually isn’t all that terrible for the individual forum owners either. My Role Playing Forums server brings in about $30 a month from the Tapatalk app, which is a lot less than my own personal app was making, but it’s still something. It’s probably more than most forum owners out there make, and most forum owners don’t really have the ability to create their own app.
I also think that Tapatalk’s BYO pricing is actually designed to discourage forum owners from opting for a BYO app. I have not used a Tapatalk BYO app so this is speculation on my part, but judging by the direction they are taking with their latest client apps, I believe it is in their best interest for the long term to convince users to shift into the big all-encompassing Tapatalk app instead of using individual BYO apps. I would also not be surprised (and I think that they should) offer forum owners an option to advertise their forums within the Tapatalk app, or to pay money for some sort of featured listing in Tapatalk. I mean, they already have the number one forum reader out there, so it’s a pretty good targeted audience for forum owners to advertise to.
I will say though that I think the loss of Forum Fiend alienates a sector of users that Tapatalk seems to have abandoned in the most recent iterations of their mobile app. While I think their new social-centric approach will probably go over well with newer/younger users who have no prior forum experience, there are still a lot of old school people out there who have been using forums since the glory days, and Forum Fiend was really catered to that niche. I think that the flashy new Tapatalk is a big turn off for that sector of the market. From a business standpoint, I don’t think it will really be a big deal for Tapatalk in the long term. A lot of these younger generation kids have never used a PC before, have never seen a forum before, and the new Tapatalk is catered nicely to this generation. For older users like me though, well I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t even like to log in to the new Tapatalk. It’s just way too much for me. And at the end of the day, I believe that this was one of the appeals of Forum Fiend. It gave users just their forums with none of the flair. That’s all some people want. Forum Fiend was never going to be a serious threat to Tapatalk, but it did fill a niche that Tapatalk is letting slip by the wayside.