An alternative view on your first e-commerce website

When it comes to understanding and communicating technology issues, few do it better than SmartCompany technology editor Andrew Sadauskas.

Andrew is one of this country’s leading authorities on technology as it applies to the SME market SmartCompany caters for.

However, his recent article entitled ‘How to start building your e-commerce website’ made what I feel is becoming a common oversight when it comes to discussing website platforms.

And that oversight relates to company owned or ‘proprietary’ website platforms.

If you’re new to the issue, it relates to there being three options when it comes to building a website.


Three roads to Utopia


The first is a fully ‘hand-coded’ website. What this means is that your website is built completely from the ground up without using a website management platform as a basis to it.

As far as SMEs are concerned, these sites are becoming rare as business operators demand some control over ongoing content modifications and refuse to pay a developer every time they want an alteration done.

The second is an open source website platform or content management system (CMS). Whilst these may be founded on a company-owned platform (for example, WordPress was developed by US company Automattic), because their ‘source code’ (programming language) is able to be accessed and altered by developers, it allows them to add all kinds of different functionality and capabilities – often by way of a third party ‘plugin’.

The third option is a ‘closed source’ proprietary platform. These are more like the business software we are all familiar with where a company provides the platform for a regular fee and only their own developers can gain access to the source code to alter the actual functionality (as distinct from the content which can be managed by either client staff or a third party ‘webmaster’).

Each of these options has its place depending on the requirements of the business and particularly their budget.


The source of the problem


In Andrew’s essentially accurate article, he says that for a ‘basic’ website, a CMS such as WordPress, Drupal or Joomla will allow you to add new pages to your site without needing to bring in a web developer each time you want to update your site.

And it’s this statement that I need to take to task.

First, the three platforms mentioned are all open source (OS) systems as distinct from proprietary systems.

“Isn’t that good?” I hear you ask. Doesn’t that mean I’m not locked in to a single platform without expensive switching?

In theory, ‘yes’ to both of these. However, in practice nothing could be further from the truth – at least when it comes to the limited resources of smaller businesses.

The reality is that open source is essentially a metaphor for ‘all care, no responsibility’. 


Freedom to tamper


What I mean by this is that the open source world is essentially designed to allow website developers to have free rein over the build and maintenance of your site.

But the moment a single line of computer code (programming) is altered, it stops being the responsibility of its development company Automattic, and then requires either your original developer, or another developer to attend and maintain it.

And this is where a technical can of worms is opened. As much as there are manuals and protocols for adding new functionality to OS, every developer has their own way of working. In fact, many take pride in doing things differently to any manual. That is the very essence of being a developer.

What’s more, the world wide web is a moving feast. Hackers come and go and browsers and operating systems upgrade and both of these mean that ongoing maintenance – and its cost – is a fact of life with OS websites.


Name your poison


Proprietary systems take an entirely different approach. Just like software, they create a platform that contains a range of features and functionalities that are devised and developed over time.

So as to maintain control over the quality of their platforms (and as many cynics would counter – to maintain profits) they do not allow third party web developers to alter their platforms or software. 

Instead it becomes no different to any other product or service you would purchase. You do your research and choose one that best fits your requirements knowing full well that its inherent functionality is essentially fixed till the next version is released – ideally with the features you need.

At first glance, it appears that the open source approach would provide more flexibility and creativity than the proprietary alternative.

But in fact the opposite is true when it comes to smaller business.


Basic website requirements


The reason is that when it comes to technology, very few small businesses are ‘leading edge’. Whilst all smaller businesses are necessarily different, their technological needs when it comes to websites are actually pretty basic.

I’d suggest that from a functional perspective, there are probably no more that say 10 different core functionality requirements for the majority of smaller business.

For example, some want secure e-commerce, others don’t. Some want an integrated email newsletter, others don’t and so on.

And these days there are literally dozens of proprietary platforms which – like most software – have more functionality and features than a smaller business will ever need, right off the rack – no coding or programming required – with the notable exception of adding a custom design or layout. And most importantly, they are very affordable.


No development required


So, as much as the development world resents hearing me say it (repeatedly as it turns out), most smaller businesses don’t require any ‘development’ as such. The proprietary systems already have more than enough functionality as standard.

This means that they will save a significant sum not just on the ‘build’ of the website but on ongoing maintenance and improvements which are performed at the hourly rate of the developer in question.

So why am I raising this? Isn’t it just one opinion over another?

Yes, it is one opinion versus another but it’s an important one.

In the wrong hands, an open source website will cost many times more than its proprietary equivalent because of the developer labour cost it entails.

Whereas a proprietary system will just keep getting better over time as the development company improves it – at no additional charge whatsoever.

And while a larger business might be able to afford such development expense, a smaller one cannot.


But WordPress is best right?


So why do proprietary systems get such short shrift from web developers?

After reading this blog it should become pretty obvious. Web ‘developers’ (as distinct from designers or content managers, etc) are simply not required in the proprietary platform scenario. The bulk of the development work has already been done by the development company.

To them, proprietary systems are essentially putting them out of business – or at least development business.

I often compare it to going to a Toyota dealer and asking them what’s the best car on the market. No second prizes for guessing what the answer will be!

Whilst I’m not suggesting that Andrew is trying to keep developers in business, the collective power of developer opinion often means that the proprietary alternatives are not given the airtime they deserve.

To Andrew’s credit, he does go on to mention a number of proprietary e-commerce solutions later in the blog. But often comments can be taken in isolation so it’s important to highlight this before it is taken on face value and the wrong decision is made on a website platform.

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.


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