Can open source eCommerce contend?

It seems that sometimes work comes in waves. I haven’t dealt with setting up a shopping cart on a site in quite a while, and now I have three clients that I’m setting up shopping carts for. The clients want a PHP based solution (good thing, considering that’s what I do), and as usual the less we spend the better. I started by looking at the available FOSS options, fully expecting that this would be a simple task. Little did I know…

The first application I looked into was osCommerce. The best way I can describe it is as an old dragon. It may be free and open source, but it’s big, bulky, and outdated. I was looking for something much easier to use, and much more current. Something that would be easy to manage once it was set up, as opposed to taking two hours to add color options to a product.

Not to be discouraged, I moved on another possibility, zenCart. ZenCart is a huge step in the right direction, but it still seemed to lack the intuitive interface that you might expect from web based software. I may be too hard on them, but a quality user interface makes the difference between happy customers, and customers that never return. All in all, there is a lot of really great technology which zenCart doesn’t use, and while it’s free and open source, that doesn’t make up for it’s lack of usability.

I continued to look around at free alternatives, but didn’t find anything noteworthy. Now I was discouraged. I decided to check into some commercial products, most notably cubeCart. It costs $130 – $180 and it’s not 100% open source, but cubeCart makes up for all that with the interface. It has an intuitive admin section, better support, and plenty of available add-on modules (for shipping, payment, even affiliate programs). In the end, we went with cubeCart, deciding that the benefits were worth the cost. I was almost ready to admit that the available FOSS options couldn’t touch commercial products in this market. Just then, a glimmer of hope! Magento.

Magento is a new up and coming PHP shopping cart, built using the Zend Framework. It is young and currently still in beta, but it shows great promise. According to their roadmap, the production version is due out first quarter 2008. It’s current drawbacks are it’s lack of support for certain payment and shipping gateways, and it’s lack of support for popular affiliate programs. However, much of this is in the roadmap, and should make it into the production version. In my experience, what they currently have out is stable, and extremely user friendly. I can finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that there will soon be a FOSS option that will be able to compete with their commercial counterparts.

In the end, if you need something right now, cubeCart is for you. While it will require some up front investment, you will save it back just on the Tylenol you won’t be buying for the headaches you will have with osCommerce or zenCart. However, if you don’t need something for a few months, or you are trying to keep an eye to the future, check out magento. You’ll be glad you did.

About Aaron D. Campbell

Owner and lead developer at BlueDog, Aaron has 10+ years of web development experience, it a regular core contributor to the WordPress project, and has released many WordPress plugins.
This entry was posted in PHP, Web Design and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 thoughts on “Can open source eCommerce contend?

  1. Scott Wilson says:

    I have heard this criticism before of Zen Cart (that the Admin panel is unintuitive), but I’ve never really understood it. It’s a large system and it takes time to learn it, but once you do, you know where to find things. There are a million tunable parameters in Zen Cart, and that’s why the admin section is so large. Also, there is now a manual on Zen Cart, which eases the learning process somewhat.

    I think Magento could be compelling in the second half of 2008. I’m seeing other things like StoreSuite and AlphaStore which are also extremely attractive and very modestly priced (a few hundred bucks should not be an obstacle for a serious business).

    I think what remains interesting about Zen Cart though is not so much that it’s free as that it has such a huge following and so many developers. Speaking as a developer, there are so many constraints on writing software for Cube Cart that it’s not worth my while to pursue it when there’s so much Zen Cart work out there.

    Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about your shopping cart adventure; thanks for sharing!

    Scott Wilson, That Software Guy

  2. Harold says:

    I have to agree with Aaron. While ZenCart may be easier to develop for, it’s not as easy to learn to run. If you have to invest a much larger time into learning how to use the system, it might be worth it to spend a little on a simpler system. However, I’ll admit that I have not yet seen the manual.

  3. Affordable Ecommerce says:

    I have gone through the exact same process as yourself, being a bit of an oscommerce veteran, i decided to look at creating some simple generic templates for potential customers to save time and effort (i’m just starting out on my own as a web design sideline).

    Oscommerce is extremely difficult to expose the HTML from PHP and has HTML littered in many different files making it almost impossible to template easily. Next i thought i would try Zencart which has an overide system whereby you can keep your customised files seperate from core files, so in the event of an upgrade to Zencart you can easily just overwrite the core files.

    However yesterday I stumbled upon Magento! – after reading the developers notes and looking at the stock site, you can see this shopping cart is very polished and not amatuer looking like the oscommerce variants. It looks very easy to customise and is very well organised and logical, as well as using valid CSS/HTML i think this is really a no brainer in the long run. The only downside being that there arent many mods for this as yet but most of the decent marketing tools are such as discount codes, 2 for 1 etc.

  4. David says:

    I’d recommend magento, it’s really improved since you wrote this article…

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