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E-commerce software market gets open-source boost

OpenSales releases the first version of its open-source e-commerce software in a move to dislodge competitors, such as InterShop, with proprietary software.

Start-up OpenSales today released the first version of its open-source e-commerce software, part of an effort to dislodge competitors, such as InterShop, with proprietary software.

The software, called AllCommerce, lets companies such as build online sales catalogs that can handle orders, keep track of inventory and generate Web pages. It's open-source software, meaning that anyone can use or modify it for free, and it competes with better-known but proprietary software from companies such as Intershop and InterWorld.

OpenSales, a 45-person company based in San Mateo, Calif., filled out its management roster and won $10 million in venture capital earlier this month. With its e-commerce software, the company hopes to reproduce the success of open-source software such as Linux, Sendmail and Apache, which have established solid followings against competition from companies such as Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.

A number of companies have sprung up to try to make money by helping people use open-source software, but the business model isn't unusual when it comes to building e-commerce Web sites, OpenSales chief executive Bonnie Crater said.

"We make money on service and support," Crater said. "This is not a mysterious business model. Most companies spend three times as much building a Web site compared to buying software."

OpenSales is among several companies trying to establish themselves as experts in one open-source software package or another. The argument for open-source software, they say, is that it will spread because it's free and improves rapidly through the efforts of numerous developers. But the open-source business model is still largely unproven.

Companies hoping to make money supporting open-source software--most of them start-ups--include Red Hat, VA Linux Systems and Linuxcare, which support Linux; Covalent Technologies, which supports the Apache Web server software; and Sendmail, which supports the email software of the same name.

One unusual aspect of OpenSales is its use of the Perl programming language for its software. By contrast, most large, complex programs are written in languages such as C, C++ or Java, which can be translated into compact instructions a chip can understand.

However, the choice isn't completely out of the blue, Perl is commonly used to power Web site features such as search engines, and it's used in Intershop's e-commerce software as well, sources familiar with the product have said.

One advantage is that Perl programs don't need to be changed to run on a wide variety of computers. AllCommerce runs on computers using Linux, Windows or any version of Unix, Crater said. "There is one code base," Crater said.

Dick Hardt, chief executive of a company called ActiveState that develops Perl programming tools, agreed that in general, there aren't any issues when running across different platforms.

However, he cautioned, the features and complexity of Perl mean that in general there's a potential for bulky, incomprehensible code. "It allows you to be more obfuscated. You can throw something together that works, but that is extremely difficult to maintain," he said

Perhaps the larger concern is performance, because Perl instructions require more translation before computers can use them compared to C++ or other languages.

"Often you get into some performance issues if you get into really huge scripts," Hardt said of Perl programs.

However, there are several ways of speeding up Perl programs so performance isn't a problem, and he said several e-commerce packages are written in Perl. It's also a useful language for joining standard software products to a company's customized systems, he added.

Crater acknowledges performance issues with earlier versions of Perl, but he argues that it's no longer a problem. "Yeah, with Perl 3 (two versions before the current generation) there were some significant issues. But current Perl will outperform Java even when compiled, mostly," Crater said.

Both agreed that one of Perl's advantages is the ease with which new modules of software can be added. OpenSales has several such plans.

OpenSales is adding modules to its core AllCommerce product that will enable the use of wish lists and a gift registry, Crater said.

OpenSales also is expanding the product to include support for different ways of purchasing goods. Currently AllCommerce has an electronic shopping cart but later will add support for auctions and purchase orders, so different types of companies can use the software.

Another feature in OpenSales is its support of Wireless Application Protocol, or WAP, a standard way for wireless devices such as cell phones to be used for activities such as online purchasing. AllCommerce distinguishes WAP requests from standard Web page requests and delivers different content accordingly, Craten said. For example, most wireless devices have screens much smaller than those of desktop computers, so Web pages must be formatted differently than for PCs.

Other avenues also loom for OpenSales' expansion. For example, Cobalt Networks, which builds special-purpose servers running Linux, is in discussions about packaging OpenSales' software on its computers, said Peder Ulander, senior product marketing manager at Cobalt.