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. In order 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 in the world: 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 upon a system that was originally meant only to be a learning tool. In return, a community of over 100,000 developers and storeowners worldwide participate in providing support, feedback, and even creating extra features and add-ons for the software. All of which, like the software itself, 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. Together with the rest of the team, they utilize the power of numbers to advance the project with a final Version 2.2 release, scheduled for the end of this month.
PeC: What are your backgrounds, how did you get involved with computers and the osCommerce Project?
PONCE DE LEON: I completed my high school education in Sydney, Australia. Afterwards, 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 into 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.
LESCUYER: Actually, 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 out as a side thing at the start of 2000. I didn’t envision that it would turn out to be what it is today. Back then it was more of an example research study, where those who were interested in learning how an online shopping system worked could take a look at what is involved in an ecommerce venture.
PeC: What were the factors in making osCommerce an open source project?
PONCE DE LEON: The project started out as an open source solution because it was the only way that interest could be gained. If it had been a closed source solution nobody could see how the system worked, no one could have provided that feedback, and no one could work on it and improve on it. That’s what the open source philosophy brings in, and it was like an invitation for anyone to come along and take a look, and to improve. It was an important factor for the project that it was open source, that this community was attracted, and that a team was assembled.
LESCUYER: It was really by chance that I found the project. I started helping people out on the forum, and tweaking stuff to get it to work with specific tax problems, that sort of stuff. 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 actually, and I was very happy that I was considered 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, and that’s what makes people jump into this open source arena.
PeC: Can you give us a brief history of the osCommerce project?
PONCE DE LEON: The project started out early in 2000. The first team members came in shortly afterwards. At the end of 2001 we changed our project name from the Exchange Project to osCommerce. That was done to mark a point in the history of the project, to say “this is the point where we are taking this project serious.” The only way to have shown that appropriately was to rename the project, to have a new image, and start from there again. It turned out quite successful.
PeC: Do you think that 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 to improve it. That’s what has been going on for the last few years, since the start actually. We have grown today to a point where we are one of the most successful open source ecommerce solutions available. That is something that couldn’t have been achieved with just one person offering a closed source solution.
PeC: Does osCommerce cater to any particular type of online retailers?
LESCUYER: I would say that out-of-the-box it’s most useful for business to consumer commerce. I have worked with very large companies that are using osCommerce. There are quite a lot of modifications made, but the engine is actually 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 really large jobs and projects.
PeC: What are the strengths of the osCommerce Project versus other shopping cart solutions?
PONCE DE LEON: The biggest strength of the project is, of course, it’s open source nature. The community that it has attracted, and how that has affected the direction of the project. Right now we have over 100,000 registered users worldwide. These users are normal users, these are developers who are working for clients, and these are new and existing storeowners. 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 the project. That’s 3,000 extra features. I don’t know any other shopping solution that has 3,000 extra features that anyone can download and anyone can install and also for free. It’s an amazing feat to have accomplished. It’s really nice to know that if this software doesn’t cater to one’s needs, that they’ll definitely find the feature that they want as a contribution.
LESCUYER: I also think that due to the open source nature of the project you have a lot of available developers all over the world who can manage and upgrade and change your shop for you if you are not able to do it yourself. Choosing osCommerce for a retail business is a good choice because even if your developer is not available later on, you will be able to call upon the huge number of developers.
PeC: Do you have any insight for us as to what the weaknesses of osCommerce are when compared to another shopping cart solution?
LESCUYER: I don’t know about Harald, but I have one. As of Milestone 2, which is the available version right now, it is quite difficult to change the graphic design because the ecommerce engine is not really separate from the presentation layer. So you have to spend quite a lot of time getting your own graphic design into the cart. We are working on this right now and this is going to change in the next release.
PONCE DE LEON: Yes, that’s going to change with the Version 2.2 Milestone 3 release. It has a new framework that allows such a separation to occur. One can change the layout of their store just by going to the administration tool and setting some parameters there. Also adding extra features such as contributions and add-on modules, it’s no longer necessary to edit the source code files. 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 still remains successful today. The new framework is really going to allow the community to grow, and allow them to 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, and will be released at the beginning of 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 at the end of January 2006. This will be the first official “stable” release of osCommerce.
PeC: Based on your experience with online retailers, what are the biggest challenges that you see them facing?
PONCE DE LEON: It’s very hard for new online stores that are coming up on the Internet to be found by potential customers. And what better way is there, other than just pure advertising, than to get high ranks in search engine results. That is something for which add-on modules available for our current release, offers help. That is going to be an out-of-the-box feature in the new framework. Another advantage to the osCommerce project is that, since it’s free, it helps save on startup costs, then they can invest that money into advertising to get themselves found.