E-Commerce on the cheap

Recently, a friend of mine asked me to recommend a set of web site development tools and a hosting service that would be (a) inexpensive and (b) easy to operate, and would (c) allow her to set up a basic e-commerce operation with which she could take orders and accept credit card payments.

My recommendation was Microsoft bCentral (US), which for about 50 bucks a month, gives you hosting service, all the storage space you would possibly need for a small e-commerce operation, several e-mail addresses, and a bunch of cool and easy-to-use Microsoft tools that don't require a lot of study to learn how to operate. Say what you will about Microsoft, if nothing else, it's user-friendly. Someone with little or no IT experience would be able to run a basic e-commerce Web site using bCentral without too much trouble.

Nonetheless, my suggestion went unheeded, and she signed up for a basic, dirt-cheap service with open-source Unix tools and no support. But then again, if she had used bCentral, I would have had the whole thing done in an afternoon and would have nothing to write about.

She learned to be a cheapskate from me. The deal from 1sthostweb.com (US) is "free Web hosting," for a one-time charge of $49.95 (includes domain name registration), and no monthly fee. You get 25M-bytes of hosting space and up to 1G-byte of transfer per month, adequate for most small first attempts at e-commerce. You can, of course, buy more for a reasonable fee. You can't go wrong for the price here. It won't do if you're the size of Amazon.com, but for getting your feet wet in the waters of electronic commerce, it's enough.

So can you get something worthwhile for free? I warned her, probably not. It'll be some command-line driven geek site that's completely unusable by ordinary folks. But happily, such is not the case. It's not as easy as some of the more expensive, template-driven e-commerce offerings that give you plenty of flashy GUIs and site wizards, but then again, the word "free" pulls a lot of weight with me.

If you've done Web site development before, or if you haven't but are willing to face a bit of a learning curve, it's a great deal. It includes a good selection of open source software, including a shopping cart, database, and a variety of utilities such as a clock, bandwidth statistics, search engine, and all the other little odds and ends you might want to incorporate into an e-commerce Web site. Domain name registration is even included in the price. If you have some tech experience, you can't go wrong with this one.

Diving right in, the first thing I did was look for the site templates. If there were tech support, I have no doubt I would have been told, "Templates? We don't need no steenkin' templates!" Of course, there weren't any. Unix people think templates are for wimps. But fortunately, since the package supports FrontPage extensions, I cheated, and started building in FrontPage, and used Microsoft's templates.

You can monitor my progress at e-commerce here. It's not pretty, and still has the words "company logo" where a picture should be, and has the little yellow stick man digging a hole to indicate that it's in progress. And of course, nobody can buy anything until I get around to installing the shopping cart. It's still a work in progress, but I'll post an update next time on our success with our open source tools and the shopping cart.

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