IBM's Net.Commerce suite of Web storefront software continues to be the best-designed and best-implemented product in this category. The latest version, Net.Commerce 3.1, adds features and improves upon the product's overall ease of use. The bad news is that the product is not as pluralist as IBM would like you to believe. Although it claims to support ODBC databases and other Web servers, you will want to use the tools provided by IBM, at least initially.
Installation of Net.Commerce was easy, once I understood that I needed to install all of the default programs. This includes the Domino Go Web server, the DB2 database, the latest Netscape browser and the Net.Commerce executable files themselves. Although the product supports other Web and database servers, getting them set up is an exercise in following pages of very explicit and tedious directions.
For example, I began my tests trying to get Net.Commerce up and running on my Netscape Enterprise Web server. After spending most of the day typing in various commands, adding a series of more than a dozen different directory mappings and making changes to its configuration file, I gave up and reinstalled the entire package, this time using the default Go Web server. (Note that Domino Go is a stand-alone Web server and not the Web add-on that works with a Notes server.)I tested the software on a 200MHz Pentium with 96MB of RAM running Windows NT Server 4.0. That is probably the minimum configuration you will want to use for this software, and more RAM is in order if you need to support large databases or heavy traffic. You can install your DB2 data-bases on a different machine from your Web server, although the installation is a bit more complex.
You will want to use the version of the Netscape browser that comes with the Net.Commerce CD-ROM, primarily because Net.Commerce requires the Java Development Kit (JDK) 1.1 patch and Communicator 4.04 to administer your store. (Any browser that is Version 3.0 or later can be used to shop, however.)Once installed, you have several choices on how to proceed. You can run the store creator wizard, a nine-step process that sets up your store from a series of six different template styles, three different catalogues of sample products, and three different store operating schemes. The store schemes are shown with nice flowcharts, illustrating how users will navigate through the store screens.
This is very clever and -- as far as I know -- unique in the world of Internet-commerce suites.
Unlike other products' store wizards, after you are done you actually have a working storefront. Of course, you may wish to replace the products that come with the sample with your own actual inventory, and that will take some effort to assemble. You can also choose to create a store without any sample products, but by doing so it may be harder to understand how to set things up.
I tried out the provided grocery store catalogue. Although it was simple to navigate, it was not easy to replace it with my own catalogue of products. Also, making changes is time-consuming and you have to visit many different screens to get everything correctly set up.
On the other hand, making changes to indi- vidual product descriptions is more intuitive than with Intershop and earlier versions of Net.Commerce.
For example, during the store creator process you are asked to specify as many as three different shipping methods. If you want to make changes to the rates or other details, you will have to visit screens in two different places. Once you have customised your store with other Net.Commerce tools, you cannot return to the store creator to change your store settings.
If you want to first try out the demonstration stores rather than create your own store, you can load one of four different samples that come with the product: a complete mall (the Metropolitan from earlier versions of Net.Commerce) and three sample storefronts. I had trouble getting these installed and had to reinstall DB2.
This version of Net.Commerce comes with a few improvements, including a Java-based Product Advisor that creates an interactive catalogue for your shoppers.
The product's overall help screens are very context-sensitive, answering most of the basic questions I had about navigation and operations.
Net.Commerce has a few interesting bugs. For example, although it is nice that the store creator can set up your store complete with an included search engine, the searches are case sensitive, which seems odd. There is no easy way to fix this, according to IBM company representatives.
Also, another nice feature is that Net.Commerce supports 15 different currencies, along with new eTill software for processing credit card payments. eTill is superior to any other credit card processing software I've seen to date.
However, if you wish to use a currency other than US or Canadian dollars, you must update the DB2 table ICCURRENCYREG. This procedure is not well-documented.
Although Net.Commerce comes with a routine for checking correct credit card numbers, the product's error reporting could use some help. You can change the error messages that the server reports, but you will have to learn the macro language syntax that these messages are written in.
There are two versions of Net.Commerce: Start and Pro. Pro adds the search tool and the Product Advisor features. Given the difference in price, these are features you can probably live without, at least initially.
The Bottom Line
This well-integrated Web storefront creation and management suite carries several enhancements to prior versions, including ease of use and superior support for credit card payments.
Pros: Simple to set up; lots of sample configurations to choose fromCons: Using non-IBM Web and database servers is tedious and difficult to set upPlatforms: Windows NT 4.0; Sun Solaris 2.5; AIX 4.1 or 4.2; OS/400 (available soon); OS/390 (available soon for Pro version only)Price: Australian pricing has not been announcedIBMTel (02) 9354 7957www.ibm.com/net.commerce