Harald Ponce de Leon had an idea to create an online shopping cart system that would serve as a guide to other ecommerce developers. That was in 2000.
To attract interest, he released his cart, then called the Exchange Project, under a free, open-source license. Nearly six years later, what started as a hobby in Ponce de Leon’s spare time has turned into one of the most popular shopping cart systems, the osCommerce project — or, as the world knows it, simply osCommerce.
Once Ponce de Leon was the only full-time developer working on the osCommerce Project. But now, an international team of volunteers supports him. Compensated only by donations and a sponsorship program, the osCommerce team continues to improve on a system meant to be a learning tool. A community of over 100,000 developers and storeowners worldwide provides support and feedback and even creates extra features and add-ons — all of which are available for free under an open-source license at osCommerce.com.
Twenty-six-year-old Ponce de Leon was born in Peru, raised in Sydney, Australia, and now lives in Germany. Christian Lescuyer is a French engineer who volunteers his services to the project. They advance the project together with the rest of the team. A final Version 2.2 is scheduled for release later this month.
Practical Ecommerce: What are your backgrounds, and how did you get involved with computers and the osCommerce project?
Harald Ponce de Leon: I completed my high school education in Sydney, Australia. Afterward, I came to Germany on holiday, and an opportunity to work with web applications and software applications presented itself with a software company. That’s how I got started in programming and making these solutions. I stayed with that company for three years before going full-time with the osCommerce project. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of stress at the same time.
Christian Lescuyer: I am an electronics engineer, and I started building computers for large companies. Then, in 2000, everyone wanted to do their own stuff with the web, so I quit my job and started with an online art gallery. The project didn’t turn out too well, but I got interested in ecommerce and joined the osCommerce project in 2001.
PEC: How did the osCommerce Project get started?
Ponce de Leon: It started as a side thing in early 2000. I didn’t envision that it would be what it is today. Back then, it was more of an example research study, where those interested in learning how an online shopping system worked could look at what is involved in an ecommerce venture.
PEC: What were the factors in making osCommerce open-source?
Ponce de Leon: The project started as an open-source solution because it was the only way to gain interest. If it had been a closed source platform, nobody could see how it worked and provide feedback, and no one could work on it and improve on it. That’s what the open-source philosophy brings: an invitation for anyone to come along and take a look and improve. It was an essential factor for the project that it was open-source and attracted a community and a team.
Lescuyer: It was really by chance that I found the project. I started helping people on the forum and tweaking stuff to get it to work with specific tax problems, that sort of thing. Then Harald sent an email to me and asked if I was interested in joining the team. That was my first open-source project experience, and I was very happy to be part of the team.
Ponce de Leon: It’s one thing to use an open-source solution. It’s one thing to participate in an open-source solution or project. And, it’s yet another thing to lead the direction that an open-source solution takes. The results are very rewarding, which makes people jump into this open-source arena.
PEC: Give us a brief history of osCommerce.
Ponce de Leon: The project started early in 2000. The first team members came in shortly afterward. At the end of 2001, we changed our project name from the Exchange Project to osCommerce. It marked a point in the project’s history to say, “We are taking this project seriously.” The only way to have shown that was to rename the project, with a new image, and start again. It turned out quite successful.
PEC: Do you think the project gets more attention (from developers) because of the community of people working on it?
Ponce de Leon: Definitely. The advantage that the open-source philosophy brings to the project is that anyone can come along and work on the project and improve it. That’s what has been going on for the last few years since the start. We have grown today to a point where we are one of the most successful open source ecommerce solutions available. That couldn’t have been achieved with just one person offering a closed source solution.
PEC: Does osCommerce cater to any online retailer?
Lescuyer: Out-of-the-box, it’s most useful for business-to-consumer commerce. I have worked with large companies that are using osCommerce. There are quite a lot of modifications made, but the engine is osCommerce. I worked with a team in Australia working on an intranet project, and the example order database had over one million products in the database. Some people are using the osCommerce engine for huge jobs and projects.
PEC: What are the strengths of osCommerce versus other shopping carts?
Ponce de Leon: The biggest strength of the project is its open-source nature, including the community. We have over 100,000 registered users worldwide. These users are developers working for clients, and new and existing store owners. It’s this community that has contributed to the success of the project. There are over 3,000 extra features from contributions that these people have submitted or participated in. I don’t know any other shopping solution with 3,000 extra features that anyone can download and install for free. It’s an amazing accomplishment. If the core software doesn’t provide for users’ needs, they can find it as a contribution.
Lescuyer: I also think that due to the open-source nature of the project, you have many developers worldwide who can manage, upgrade, and change your shop for you. That makes osCommerce a good choice for retail.
PEC: What are the weaknesses of osCommerce compared to other shopping carts?
Lescuyer: As of Milestone 2, which is the available version, it is difficult to change the graphic design because the ecommerce engine is not separate from the presentation layer. So you have to spend quite a lot of time getting your graphic design into the cart. We are working on this now. It will change in the next release.
Ponce de Leon: Yes, the Version 2.2 Milestone 3 release has a new framework that allows such a separation. One can change the layout of his store just by going to the administration tool and setting some parameters there. Also, adding extra features such as contributions and add-on modules makes it unnecessary to edit the source code. And that was an important step to take for the next release. The Version 2.2 Milestone 2 release is somewhat outdated for today’s standards, but it’s a very proven framework, and it remains successful today. The new framework will allow the community to grow and make extra add-on modules that weren’t possible before.
PEC: When can we expect Version 2.2 Milestone 3 to be released?
Ponce de Leon: Ahhh, the ultimate question! There are no release dates set. Milestone 3, which introduces the new framework for the final release, will be released in mid-December 2005. Milestone 4 introduces some of the contributions as standard features. It will release in early January 2006. Milestone 4 is the last development stage before the final Version 2.2 release. The final Version 2.2 release will probably happen in late January 2006. It’s the first official “stable” release of osCommerce.
PEC: What are the biggest challenges online retailers face?
Ponce de Leon: It’s very hard for new online stores to be found by potential customers. The best way, other than advertising, is high rankings in search engine results. That is something add-on modules available for our current release will help with. It’s an out-of-the-box feature in the new framework. Another advantage of osCommerce is that, since it’s free, it saves on startup costs. Merchants can then invest that money into advertising to get found.