Storefront Revamp

Akopia's low-cost Interchange 4.6 gains tool suite

Akopia Inc.s dramatically updated Web storefront, Interchange, has transformed itself from a somewhat raw storefront programming kit into a polished, packaged offering that is now close to (although not yet the equal of) high-end commercial players.

Despite the minor-sounding version number, Interchange 4.6 is a major change from prior releases. The package, which shipped in October, is actually a merger of Akopias two storefront packages: Tallyman, which has good graphical management tools but weak shopping features, and MiniVend, which has a feature-rich shopping engine but no graphical administration tools whatsoever.

What a difference good tools make! Interchange 4.6s graphical administration tools are comprehensive and professional, with an easy-to-navigate layout and online help.

Interchange is distributed using the open-source GNU General Public License (and therefore is free to download and use) and is written in Perl. Akopia offers technical support, hosting services starting at $300 per month, and custom installation and programming contracts starting at a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Interchange runs on a variety of Unix operating systems—but not on Windows NT—and supports Oracle Corp.s database (which we used in tests), MySQL ABs MySQL and the PostgreSQL development teams PostgreSQL databases.

Interchange 4.6 operates in a higher league than Zelerate Inc.s AllCommerce 1.0.3, which is also open-source. Although AllCommerce competes well in the under-$1,000 storefront market, Interchange offers enough functionality to compete in the multithousand-dollar storefront market.

The key area where AllCommerce has the advantage is in catalog management: AllCommerce offers more through its hierarchical catalog design and support for product variants (variant support is planned for the next release of Interchange).

In contrast to AllCommerce, Interchange offers product discounting rules (but only by number of items ordered, not by date or shopping cart contents) and broader database support.

Interchange also offers Web-based site design tools and richer content management features than AllCommerce does (including the ability to edit HTML templates right from the administration tools). An online report builder let us quickly create reports on any Interchange table. For example, we created a report showing current inventory levels through a simple point-and-click process.

In the high-end storefront market, Interchange is now a viable option, although it lacks some large features found in such competitors as IBMs WebSphere Commerce Suite, Multiactive Software Inc.s Entice eBusiness Suite and Microsoft Corp.s just- released Commerce Server 2000.

Interchange doesnt support auctioning (Akopia is working on adding this to an upcoming release) or coupons, and it has very limited personalization capabilities. We could personalize using attributes from a customers profile—greeting the customer by name, for example—but couldnt provide custom pricing or custom catalog views—common business-to-business features—without coding logic directly into templates. A personalization API is planned for the next version of Interchange.

Version 4.6 does have some high-end data mining features. We could automatically generate cross-sell links based on our customers actual historical purchases.