E-commerce platforms, i.e., software that you can use to set up your ecommerce business, come in two forms. Firstly, there is proprietary software where you pay for a license to use it. Secondly, there is open-source software that you can get for free and where you have access to the underlying code.
Proprietary software can come in the form of SaaS packages where you pay a periodical fee to continue using it. Examples include Shopify and BigCommerce. These platforms are typically designed to meet the needs of enterprise-grade businesses with varied requirements.
Proprietary versions can also come in the form of software that you get for a one-time payment and can install on your server to be used for as long as you want. CS-Cart is an example.
The proprietary versions differ from open source platforms in that:
- You have to pay to get the package and
- You get a “complied” product that makes it impossible to access the underlying code.
Open source means that the code is open to you. You can review the code, make any changes to meet your unique needs, and implement the customized code to set up your ecommerce website. (The catch here is that you should have relevant programming know-how, or can access such know-how.)
Ecommerce platforms are typically coded using web application development languages such as PHP (which itself is open source) or ASP.NET (which is a proprietary Microsoft product). The operating code will be accompanied by database software such as MS SQL. You upload the package to your webserver to set up your ecommerce website.
We will look briefly at some open source ecommerce platforms, including the major ones. Before doing that, let us compare the pros and cons of proprietary and open-source alternatives.
Open-source software is available for free. You can simply download the package and then upload it to your webserver to set up your ecommerce store. If you are familiar with these basic tasks, you can start your online store in practically no time.
Because the free downloads come with only the core functionality, you are likely to need additional functionalities. You might also need some customization to meet your special needs or preferences. Adding new functionalities and customizing existing ones would involve working with the code.
Unless you are an experienced programmer familiar with the programming language used (such as PHP) you would need to:
- Pay the software supplier for add-on modules and any customization support or
- Engage paid programmers with relevant experience to do the work.
For example, refer to this comparison between Magento Open Source and Magento Commerce offerings. You can download the open-source version free, whereas you will have to pay to use the commerce version. Note how many extra facilities the paid version offers. You will also notice that while the paid version comes with support, the free version does not.
Open source platforms are thus not completely free, unless:
- You have a small venture and are quite happy with just the core functionalities of the downloaded package or
- You are an accomplished programmer and can work with the code without paying anybody to enhance the package
Popular open-source software tends to have a big community of developers who work on it. What this means is that the code is reviewed by a large number of experienced programmers who are likely to notice any bugs or functionality issues, and discuss these in the community forums. Discussions usually cover not only problems but also opportunities for improving the product.
The discussions tend to lead to robust solutions that are then implemented. The result could be a robust piece of software that is highly reliable and have much-needed functionalities.
However, this assumes that there is a big community of developers who are passionate about the product and work with commitment on it. This might not be the case for niche products.
Proprietary software could include hidden code say, code that generates data of value to the vendors, and transmit it to them. Users of the software might not be aware of the existence of such code. Though we expect transparency from reputed vendors, the possibility of hidden code is still there.
On the other hand, open-source software is fully transparent as we have access to the full code. We will be able to familiarize ourselves with every module of the code and what each module does. This is possible only if you can understand the code, however.
Customization to Meet Special Needs
Users might have their own requirements or preferences. For example, you might need to compute taxes in a way that complies with the relevant rules and regulations applicable in your country.
Unless the software comes with built-in functionalities to meet these special needs, you will have to do some customization.
In the case of paid versions, you could seek support from the software vendor to implement the changes. In the case of open-source versions, you will have to do it yourself or pay extra for any such customization.
Open-Source E-commerce Platforms
Let us now look briefly at some providers of open source digital commerce software. Some are from major providers like Adobe, while others are from individuals or small teams working at GitHub (a platform for developers).
Magento from Adobe offers two versions of e-commerce platforms, one open source and the other cloud-based eCommerce. The open source version is offered as “The eCommerce Platform for Developers and Small Businesses” and “software (that) delivers the features you need to build and grow a unique online store from the ground up.”
The software is written in PHP for a Linux hosting environment. You have full access to the source code. Download it free and install it to set up an ecommerce store with basic functionality.
You can then buy extensions from Magento Marketplace to add more functions. Alternatively, you can work with Magento implementation partners and developers to add desired functionalities and customize the package to meet your needs and preferences.
The free version does not receive any support from Magento, while the paid eCommerce version receives full support.
NopCommerce is a “Free and open-source eCommerce platform” that is written in ASP.NET for use in a Windows hosting environment. It is offered as “The most popular ASP.NET shopping cart in the world based on Microsoft technologies.” You can download it free and have full access to the ASP.NET code.
Once downloaded, you can install the software in a web server running under Windows to create your online store. There is no transaction, monthly or hidden fees. The software comes with “powerful out-of-the-box features for effective B2C and B2B sales, without any restrictions and absolutely free.”
For any support, you have to refer to the documentation provided by vendors, or seek help from the community of users and developers. There is a premium support option that is available against payment.
Opencart comes with free downloads and updates, with “built-in SEO” and easy management of “products, customers, orders, tax rules, coupon codes, and more.”
This platform also offers a big selection of extensions and themes and “free community or dedicated commercial support.” That means you pay for assured support from the company.
X-cart is “an eCommerce platform created for your business practices. Big or small, our customizable features grow as your digital footprint expands.”
You pay a one-time licensing fee and no transaction, monthly or hidden fees after that. Just click a button to upgrade the software automatically.
Abantecart is a responsive shopping cart software that works on mobile and computer screens of different sizes. You can install it on your existing site to start selling from your “blog, article or any webpage.”
As documented on the Abantecat docs page, the software can be downloaded free and installed under different environments, including cPanel, cloud, and local server or computer. Small ventures or large enterprises can use it.
Bagisto is another feature-rich open source e-commerce platform. It can serve as a marketplace where multiple sellers can sell their products and work with multiple inventory databases. The platform also offers Right-to-Left language support.
Odoo offers a “Modern open source online store (with) awesome product pages (that are) mobile friendly (and) easy to build.” Product pages can be customized “in seconds” for both great functionality and impact.
osCommerce provides tools to set up your “own complete and self-hosted online store and website for free to securely sell products and services to customers worldwide. You have complete access to and total control of your online store and data.”
Spree Commerce “is an open-source ecommerce platform for growing brands. Available for free with a mobile-first and customizable UX.”
Open Source Ecommerce Platforms: Summary
Open source means that you have full access to the source code, i.e., the code underlying the software package. Generally, the code will be written in PHP, an open source programming language, or ASP.NET, a proprietary language using Microsoft technologies.
You can usually download the package without any payment and install it on your web server (Linux server for PHP and Windows server for ASP.NET).
The free packages do not get dedicated support from the vendor. Instead, you will have to depend on the documentation they provide and on the user/ developer community for help.
The vendors often provide paid versions with more functionality, and/ or paid add-on modules to enhance the core functionality of the free version.