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Open Source VS Commercial E-Commerce Software

Posted on 4.16.2009

Open source software is getting plenty of looks from all Web professionals as the collective focus has turned to making the most of a limited budget. Many are now choosing open source over their commercial counterparts.

However, the decision requires serious consideration, especially for those involved in e-commerce and Internet retailing. While open source does provide significant cost savings, does it require Web professionals to take some serious risks on the integrity of their systems?

Ask 10 Web professionals the definition of open source and you will receive 10 different answers. The promise of open source as defined and provided by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) is that open source software is of better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, ends predatory vendor lock-in and, of course, comes at a lower cost.

The OSI has required that to classify as a real open source license, it (the license) must feature a free transfer and be free of charge, be available in source code form and that deviated software not be disseminated under the same license. Certainly sounds simple enough.

The Advantages of Open Source Solutions

Compared to the implementation cost of commercial platforms — high-end commercial providers can charge from the hundreds to thousands or tens of thousands each month/year for a typical license — open source is attractive to a broader community as it is, in no uncertain terms, free. “We are a start up. And, as such, need to save money,” says Greg Campbell of IndustrialPartFinder.com. “So, it doesn’t take much detective work to know that we went the open source route for our shopping cart.”

Safety is another reason many turn to open source solutions. Since closed source code is private, the software is not typically tested as rigorously as open source software. As a result, safety gaps or safety-relevant defective functions cannot be seen or corrected quickly. In an open source environment, the public has a chance to make corrections for re-release as quickly as a defect is found. In the same regard, closed systems cannot be tested as extensively for performance and stability, therefore optimizing the user experience is a more complicated, time consuming process.

Many tech-savvy Web professionals choose open source solutions because of the availability of extensive support systems. While users of commercial solutions can work with qualified, knowledgeable personnel (who may be constrained by time), they have little in the way of ready access to community support via mailing lists or forums as do users of open source solutions. For Campbell, another deciding factor was the online community that helps support the ZenCart product. “It’s very active and there are a ton of ZenCart experts out there willing to help. We also have no inhouse programmers, and having this support really helped ease our mind going this route. The learning curve turned out to be pretty gentle, and we learned to navigate the system fairly quickly.”

The Arguments for Commercial Solutions

With open source software, development (progress) can be stopped at any time. Without a formal contract specifying the length of arrangement (for example support), merchants could be left in the lurch supporting the platform by themselves. And not all open source solutions have robust communities that offer genuine technical help.

For Website Magazine reader Joel Kidd (JoelKidd.com), the biggest factor in the decision between commercial or open source solutions was the lack of professional support. “There is a lot of free open source software out there. The problem is that not all of them have good support systems. If your e-commerce site goes down, you shouldn’t have to spend three days on a forum trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. I know that commercial e-commerce software comes with a higher price tag, but as with anything else, usually you get what you pay for,” says Kidd.

There’s also a factor of user expertise that comes into play with open source software. “I’ve found that open source e-commerce carts can be great for people who know coding and can do regular maintenance, such as when a security update is released that requires FTP-ing files and possibly some MySQL work,” says Chuck Lasker of MerchantTutorials.com. “But for ‘regular’ people who have online stores, I have yet to find a simple open source system that doesn’t require programmer help.”

Commercial systems, on the other hand, routinely enforce contractual penalties for non-observance of support reaction times — something merchants choosing the commercial route should consider requiring before agreeing to purchase the software. Furthermore, (and in line with support limitations of open source) stability, performance and development improvements can be much more robust and reliable in commercial systems. Open source platforms are routinely released by non-professionals and, as such, are not professionally tested. Therefore, the potential for stability and performance problems due to programming deficiencies make open source options less reliable overall than their commercial counterparts.

Finally, while open source software is free, it often requires costly modules if merchants are interested in additional functions. For example, Website Magazine reader Bill Tyler, who uses VirtueMark with Joomla 1.5, felt the need to add a paid affiliate module to his site, BubblePlanner.com. “The third-party software we used was quite good and user friendly. However, we found it difficult to properly set up conversion tracking for our various advertising. Although we were growing profitably with this cart, there was always a sense that some of our advertising was being wasted or ineffective,” says Tyler.

For many aspiring Internet retailers, open source software is the only way to go in the current economy. Thanks to an active and robust community of open source devotees who have pegged commercial e-commerce packages as overpriced, oversold and underperforming, there are many available solutions. But there are some risks involved.

The best way to choose between commercial solutions and those of the open-source variety is to test, test, and test again to familiarize yourself and those within your enterprise with the software. Only then will you be confident enough to let the software do its job, while you do yours — sell.

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