Extreme Makeover: osCommerce Version 3 Alpha 5

Ready for use by developers only, despite its "stable production-ready" label.

With surprisingly little fanfare, the venerable mother of open source ecommerce programs, osCommerce, released what is said to be a "stable production-ready" version of the open source commerce program, osCommerce Online Merchant Version 3 Alpha 5. The founder of the program, Harald Ponce de Leon, says this will be the first supported release in the new Version 3 series.

Many in the osCommerce community are puzzled by Ponce de Leon's use of the phrase "production ready" on an Alpha release. By definition, an alpha release is ready for use only by serious developers. A Beta release is defined as ready for testing and preliminary use by very experienced, or "power" users. Only a full release is defined as production-ready. But this strange twilight status is not new to osCommerce.

osCommerce Version 3 Alpha 5
The osCommerce Version 3 Alpha 5 admin panel.
(Click for larger image)

The osCommerce program's entire existence has been lived in the shadow of being declared both ready and not ready for production use. The group's original plan ‑‑ begun in 2000 ‑‑ was to release four separate milestones - indicated by MS1, MS2, and so forth - and for MS4 to be the final, production release.

However one development team after another came and went, and the program's development bogged down during MS2.2, a time period spanning the last five years. Eventually Ponce de Leon simply renamed the milestone version osCommerce Version 2.2, and the program has been used in thousands of live online stores despite its quasi-official status.

By calling the new release both production-ready and an Alpha Release, Ponce de Leon continues to walk both sides of the fence. For now, only experienced Web developers should consider using the new program for a live store because structural framework changes are planned for the program.

Slow and Lonely Development

A production-ready version of osCommerce has been expected for at least five years, and many developers have ceased waiting. Many delays were caused by one development team after another working on the project. "If Ponce de Leon holds one view and a majority of his team votes for another view, he disregards his own team and does what he originally intended to do" said Rhea Anthony, former member of Ponce de Leon's development team and founder of the New osCommerce Project.

"Some will become disillusioned and leave, others will just find one day that they no longer have any access - the access rights having been removed for daring to openly disagree with the Project Leader [Ponce de Leon]," Anthony added. Anthony's team released a final version of osCommerce Version 2 last November after Ponce de Leon had disappeared for the greater part of the year.

Ponce de Leon admits that he has been the primary developer, and some say the only developer on this new Version 3 of the program. He explains in his osCommerce online forum that he chose to cut himself off from the community so he could focus on the framework of the program, so it could be released as soon as possible.

osCommerce admin cheat sheet
The osCommerce Version 3 Alpha 5 MS3 admin menu cheat sheet.
(Click for larger image)

What's New in osCommerce Version 3?

To existing osCommerce store owners, Version 3 will look and act much like the old osCommerce that they know and love. A few graphical changes include top navigation drop-down menus instead of the screen-hogging left column navigation. Brightly colored icons adorn each menu item.

The really new stuff is all on the inside, the guts of the program. The new framework is said to be object-oriented, focusing on the data. This is very different from the previous programming method that focused on the function of a module. That required building the program from scratch. It also requires a very different kind of programmer, as you will see below. Of the other popular open source ecommerce programs, only Magento is built with an object-oriented framework. The Magento team used a pre-existing framework called Zend to speed development of that program.

To the delight of designers worldwide, the new program contains built-in templates. The templates are built to existing standards called XHTML/CSS based default template layout. This will remove much of the pain and expense of customizing the look of osCommerce shops.

The main Admin screen is an all-new control panel, taking a cue from CRE Loaded and Zen Cart. In addition to a list of administrators who have recently logged in and recent program errors (Error Log), it contains a summary of new customers, new orders, new product reviews and recently updated products.

The new program is also compatible with current versions of operating systems and languages found on Web hosts worldwide. This includes PHP v5.2+ (with MySQLi extension, and MySQL Version 4.1.13+ or Version 5.0.7 or above. MySQL Version 5.0 is excluded because it contains 35 known bugs, so is rarely used.

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