Miva gets down to business

Miva gets down to business

When a deep-pocketed company decides to start selling on the Internet, it can rely on a stable of in-house developers or hire consultants. Many other businesses, however, are not served by this type of online launch strategy, most notably small, struggling companies that are short on capital, employees, and time.

Miva may be poised to dominate that market with Miva Merchant 1.24, an electronic-commerce system that sets up in minutes and requires no programming or even HTML knowledge. If you have photos or image files of the products you are selling and a paragraph of text describing them, you are only a few hours away from having an interactive Web catalogue.

I tested Miva Merchant 1.24 on a Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Server, but it also runs on several flavours of Unix and Linux. Because Miva realises that its most likely customers cannot afford high-speed Internet connections, Miva Merchant is sold primarily to Web-hosting facilities, which offer their subscribers use of Miva products. It is up to you or your host to plug Miva shopping carts into payment systems.

Miva Merchant is written in Miva Script, Miva's proprietary scripting language. Script statements, variables, and other programming elements come together in a relaxed Extensible Markup Language dialect - that is, there are no closing tags. It's a hard-to-read, though workable language, but site builders do not need to know it to use Miva.

Miva Merchant is distributed electronically, and the package, which includes the Miva Script engine and Miva Merchant scripts, is a lean 3MB.

It is almost laughably easy to create and populate a new Miva Merchant site. If you have trouble configuring your system's Web server, Miva provides a simple Web server of its own. I managed to get an empty store live in about a minute using Miva's Web server. Integrating Miva Script into NT's Internet Information Server (IIS) took more time. Although the documentation is fine for the basics, it lacked the depth to help with my IIS integration.

A Miva Merchant site uses a basic catalogue model: item categories, items, customers, and shopping carts. Data is stored in Xbase-compatible files, which means that Miva Merchant sites must remain small. Miva Script can connect to larger, ODBC databases, but if you outgrow Miva Merchant's Xbase database, it's time for a custom solution.

Catalogues are easy to create, if a bit tedious. By using Miva Merchant's Web-based administrative interface, you create new product groups and then add products to those groups one at a time. Unfortunately, making each entry incurs a server round-trip, which takes a few annoying seconds. A batch-entry tool would be welcome.

Because the product offers little customisation, every Miva Merchant site looks pretty much like all the others. You can change colours, fonts, and graphics, but the package needs more layout templates than the two bland ones provided.

Miva Merchant is easy to outgrow, in which case you will be better off with traditional Web development. But for small companies looking to quickly publish a basic catalogue site, it is hard to imagine a better solution.the bottom lineMiva Merchant 1.24Summary: Miva Merchant generates simple, but functional, catalogue-based I-commerce Web sites. Users with little technical expertise can easily build online catalogues.

Business Case: Miva Merchant sites are too basic for high-volume use, but they're just right for smaller businesses that need immediate, affordable online catalogues.

Pros: ¥ Extremely fast setup ¥ Inexpensive ¥ Small footprintCons: ¥ Limited customisation ¥ Low-volume database enginePlatforms: Windows NT 4.0, several flavours of Unix, and Linux.

Cost: $US495 per domain, available through Web hosts; $795 for Miva Commerce Server.


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