Getting More Than You Paid For: osCommerce’s Open Source Storefront
Maybe you’ve realized that the e-commerce system you’re using just doesn’t do things the way you want them done. Or you want to add a particular feature to your site because you know it will improve sales. Or maybe you simply want to change the look of your site beyond your existing system’s capabilities. If any of these apply to you, it might be time to look into osCommerce, the open source e-commerce system.
osCommerce software is available free under the terms of the GPL (Gnu Public License). Similarly to Linux, there is a large community of avid supporters actively involved in using the system and in making it better. You can benefit from this grassroots activity because other users’ modifications and add-ons to the software are made available on the osCommerce Web site.
Bottom line: You get an expandable and always-improving e-commerce application for free.
Free and Clear
Not only is it free, but the typical setup of the osCommerce software is simple — if you have a server. You download the application, unzip the files and run a script that installs the application on your server. After making some configuration changes, you have a full-featured e-commerce system ready for use. osCommerce will run on any server operating system that supports PHP, Apache, and MySQL. That list includes Linux, Solaris, BSD, Mac OS X, and Microsoft Windows environments, so it’s likely your server will be able to host the application.
If you’ve been running your store on Yahoo!, eBay, or another hosted site, this will be a significant change for you, since you’ll be leaving a fully managed service and will be responsible for managing both your server and your store software.
But should managing your own server sound like more than you want to handle, you can contact a hosting providers who specializes in osCommerce. There are several to choose from, including chainreactionWeb.com and snappyserver.com. These companies charge monthly fees for their hosting packages like any other hosting company, but they include osCommerce at no charge with some or all of their offerings. This kind of arrangement lets you concentrate on your store rather than maintaining the software.
Community Contributions and Customization
Most users say that customization is one of the most valuable aspects of osCommerce. And a large part of customizing your software is thanks to the efforts of the open source community.
Indeed, a significant advantage to open source software is the effort put in by a community of users and developers to making modifications — also called “contributions” — to the basic product. And as part of the open source licensing agreement, when a user makes an add-on or improvement in the osCommerce code, they make the module available to the public at no charge.
Consequently, there are nearly 2,000 different contributions listed on the osCommerce site. They add or improve shipping, design themes, reports, and other functions. Hosting companies that offer pre-configured osCommerce systems typically include several of the most popular contributions pre-installed, but you can add any others you find useful.
The add-on contributions represent one form of customization, but there are a number of changes you can make to the system without adding modules or doing hard-core programming.
osCommerce is written in PHP, a fairly simple programming language used extensively in the open systems community. And while it isn’t mandatory to fully understand the language to use osCommerce, many users say that they have easily learned enough of PHP to make changes on their own.
“The basic setup of osCommerce is very easy for a systems administrator,” said Steve Howland, who operates three Web stores using osCommerce and installed the system himself. “This means that initial setup must be done by someone with at least basic Web experience and who understands what PHP and MySQL mean. Once the setup is done, however, the store can be easily managed by a novice person with no HTML experience.”
You can get an idea of the extent of customization possible by viewing some stores using osCommerce through links on osCommerce’s Web site. Looking through some examples, it’s clear there is a wide variety of ways to set up a store using the basic system.
While osCommerce claims to be “the leading open systems e-commerce solution,” there are low-cost PHP-based and similar alternatives that might be worth considering. Products like x-cart, LiteCommerce, and Quickstore are available for purchase, and pricing for the basic versions range between $100 and $200.
However, you’ll also pay for any options you want to add to these systems. For instance, Quickstore’s credit card plug-ins cost an additional $49.95, and other options such as “online catalog builder” cost from $50 to $100. Some users will decide that the advantage of buying a product gives them some assurance that the system and its modules will work properly. This may be especially true for people uneasy with user-supported software like osCommerce.
Online vendors who have had experience with osCommerce as well as other systems acknowledge a differences between the offerings. But osCommerce’s wealth of built-in features combined with the amazing (and growing) list of contributions makes a compelling case for at least trying the free system.
Luke Rohenaz, a network technician with Diversified Network Solutions in Albany, NY, turned to osCommerce after trying several other packages.
“I liked how modular it was,” Rohenaz said. “It’s well-organized and not too hard to find where the code is that needs to be edited to do what you’re trying to do. I’ve tried modifying other programs in order to add new features, and in general, I find it is easier with osCommerce than with a lot of other scripts.”
No software is without problems, and open source applications are no different. But by all accounts the base system is extremely stable. The contributions can be less stable simply because they haven’t been tested as intensively as the base system. However the user/developer community seems to be very active and responsive, so any problems you may find are likely to be answered quickly.
According to Rohenaz, “The fact that osCommerce is open source, and that there is a whole community talking about it and sharing their finds and tweaks, is a huge plus.”
Should you use it?
If you want your store to look or behave differently from the rest of the crowd, or if you’re struggling with managing the details of your existing store, you may be exactly the right candidate for osCommerce. When Steve Howland’s product offering grew beyond 1,500 products, he switched to osCommerce because of the daily maintenance time required.
As Howland puts it, “Previously, I had used an e-commerce service which is was excellent as far as it went, but I found it difficult to manage in scenarios where the store had more than about 100 products, or the products changed frequently. Diecastairplane.com has about 1,500 products with about 10 new products every week. Using osCommerce, it takes me about 1 hour every week to manage changes and add new products.”
So, while you may not eliminate every headache, you may be able to create a more functional store while, at the same time, cutting down on the time you spend managing it. And, you can’t beat the price.
Scott Koegler is a contributor to eCommerce-Guide.com.