A lot of web hosting users are confused when they are trying to create their first community on which forum script to pick for their community as changing options down the line isn't something that is preferred or can be easily done.
We are going to compare all 3 most popular scripts on a few points such as their user friendliness, security and reliability, these are the most important points when picking your forum script, however just because one of the contenders win doesn't make it the best script out there, the needs of each person is different however we're only comparing them in the case of general audience.
phpBB was first created by James Atkinson (theFinn) in June 2000 as a UBB-like forum solution for his wife. Once released to the public through SourceForge, it gained popularity very quickly, and by December of the same year v1.0.0 was released. Two additional major releases, 1.2 and 1.4, were made in February and April of 2001. During this time, the development team expanded to include Bart van Bragt (BartVB) and Paul S. Owen (psoTFX). Work on phpBB 2.0.x began in February of 2001. phpBB2 was built entirely from scratch, and took an entire year to complete.
Finally, in April of 2002, phpBB 2.0.0 was made available to the public. The 2.0.x line of phpBB has since risen to become the most successful opensource bulletin board software worldwide. Work on phpBB 2.2 was started almost immediately and continued over the following years. On January 14, 2005, it was announced that phpBB 2.2 would be no more. Due to the large scale changes made to the codebase and the lack of backwards compatibility with phpBB 2.0.x., it was decided that the next version of phpBB would have to be 3.0.0, as is required under the Linux Kernel numbering system. Thus, phpBB3 "Olympus" was born.
User friendliness: 4.5
phpBB can be installed using Fantastico on most web hosting providers automatically with a couple of clicks which is a big plus for user friendliness and also the new subSilver theme that is included with phpBB 3 certainly looks very impressive and a lot more professional compared to the previous one included in phpBB 2, the administrative side has got a facelift which makes it look a lot better with better usability, while administrative control panels have always had design flaws on how to distribute data well through pages, phpBB certainly came up with good ways to bypass that. Also, it has been made more as a plug and play forum starting phpBB 3 compared to the previous hours of configuration spent to configure and find a decent theme for it.
Security is a pretty strong point for phpBB considering that for the previous 7 years, phpBB 2 had 38 security advisories, around 5 per year might be a high number but at the number of users that use it, it is very low. However the phpBB 3 seems to be going very strong, since its launch date which was 13th of December 2007 till now, which is around 6-7 months, and it has only had 1 security advisory which makes it very secure compared to other forum scripts around.
phpBB runs the world's biggest online forum at the moment which is the Gaia online forum, it has 1,334,740,294 posts and over 12,589,038 members, these numbers are very big, the second biggest phpBB forum which is a Brazilian games forum has over 102,704,207 posts and 167,802 "“ The difference is huge but millions of posts and all these popular forums running phpBB with no problem is certainly very impressive and gives phpBB top marks for its reliability
Overall score: 14/15
The final score for phpBB is very high and it's not surprising considering according to a small Google check, it is currently hosting over 6,680,000 forums and a big reason why is because of it's popularity and how it's very secure and reliable.
SMF was created to replace the forum software YaBB SE, which at the time was gaining a bad reputation because of problems with its Perl-based equivalent and similarly named software YaBB. YaBB was known to cause resource allocation problems and was resource heavy on many systems, in its earlier versions. YaBB SE was written as a rough PHP port of YaBB, but tended to have many of the same resource and even security problems since it was a port of the insecure Perl version. Joseph Fung and Jeff Lewis of Lewis Media Inc., the owners of YaBB SE and the original owners of SMF, made the decision to convert to a new brand and name.
SMF started as a small project by one of the YaBB SE developers and its main intent was to add more advanced templating to YaBB SE. The project then slowly grew to address common feature requests, efficiency problems, and security concerns. A rehaul of YaBB SE had been in development for several years, but was superseded by this then competing project. Popular interest in the new YaBB SE fork sparked a complete rewrite of the code, with security and performance in mind. This eventually became today's Simple Machines Forum. The first SMF release was SMF 1.0 Beta 1a, released on 30 September 2003 to Charter Members only.
On the 23rd of October 2006, Simple Machines LLC was registered in the state of Arizona, and the transfer of copyrights from Lewis Media to Simple Machines LLC was completed on the 24th of November 2006 during a three-day retreat in Tucson, AZ. This was done for the ”[solidification of] the team's commitment to continuously providing free software, without the perceived risks of corporate influence"
User friendliness: 3.5
From all 3 forums, SMF doesn't get a lot of credit for its user friendliness; the user interface that it comes with is very old and looks very outdated, it has been the same for quite a few years now with no face lift at all. The administrator panel is a lot more crowded/harder to understand than other scripts, the initial score for user friendliness was 3 however one neat feature that is given for is the web install, to sum it up, instead of having to download, uncompress, upload, install, you download one PHP file that does all of that, it's very suitable and helpful however the UI still needs a lot more work for it to be on par. A plus because it can be automatically installed using Fantastico with a couple of clicks.
SMF might not take the pie at user friendliness but it steals it at security, for the past 4 years, it has only had 7 security advisories which means around 2 per year which is a big difference compared to the other forums, the elements and the main code is very secure which makes it a very good forum on the backend, however because it is not often updated, not having a lot of security advisories isn't a surprise for a stable untouched product.
SMF isn't popular amongst big forums, the biggest forum at the moment that is hosted by SMF has 4,358,549 posts and 30, 795 "“ While it is not very popular however it is secure which is why it's reliability marks are a bit high, also it has a good implementation with Joomla which makes it one of the more popular choices for Joomla users, it is also being used on the Joomla support forum.
Overall score: 12.5/15
The overall score for SMF is expected; it has a lot of work to be done on feature-wise however it is very impressive on its security part and could be very well a future reliable forum script. It would be very useful to have it for a public forum with minimal features but maximum security.
MyBB's roots lie in the discussion boards XMB and DevBB — Years ago, Chris Boulton, web34rk and b0ndman started developing XMB. After some time, web34rk and b0ndman left the team and Chris became lead developer of a team with two other developers. Over time, staff shifted again and several developers didn't like the way things were heading. Together, they forked XMB and created DevBB. DevBB was the predecessor to MyBB, a temporary solution for people to use whilst MyBB was being developed. Development teams changed frequently, but MyBB is still here with Chris Boulton as lead developer since 2002.
User friendliness: 4.5
The user friendliness of MyBB is very good, considering that it is a new player in the free forums game however it has been evolving fast and taking over the forums market quickly because of its very simple down-to-earth setup and configuration, it facilitates management of your forum by making everything a lot simpler but at the same time still having the capacities of advanced management such as provided in other good scripts or even good paid forum scripts. A small minus is that it is not automatically installable on web hosts using Fantastico.
The security is a major issue with MyBB, it is generally secure however it needs a lot more work, considering that it had 34 security advisories in the past 4 years which means around 9 security advisories per year, that is very high however it is still a new script and it has a lot of work to go into it, the more work that is done on it, the more it should be stable in the future, I wouldn't be surprised if the initial versions of other forums would have as much exploits as this, however MyBB has a history of quickly addressing security issues and letting their clients know.
MyBB is very reliable because of how quick it is updated and is slowly starting to be adapted by big forums, one of the big forums that is ran by MyBB has over 3 million posts and 30 thousand members, a forum dedicated to NCAA (college sports). Another couple of forums with 100K posts are coming up soon, also the upcoming versions of MyBB have support for clustered MySQL database setups which gives them a big advantage for hosting big forums.
Overall score: 12/15
MyBB is still a work in progress and the release of their new upcoming 1.4 version might change a lot and should change a lot however the current status is very good and this project seems to be heading to the right track and following the tracks of other popular scripts.
To conclude, our winner is phpBB which is by far the best for the current time, it has been working forever for the past years with no problems and the release of phpBB 3 separates it from the competition by far however MyBB is upcoming well with their 1.4 release and SMF are still focusing on the very secure forum script.