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June 27th, 2008, 08:47 PM

Free software doesn’t come cheap

Open-source e-commerce solutions are plentiful, but don’t put your wallet away just yet.

Q: Kenneth C. Fletcher, Oakland, Calif.
What are the best, free open-source solutions for e-commerce? My needs include robust international transactional functionality, a shopping-cart mechanism, and something that can be easily customized to handle products and Web content on a global scale, from Japan to Brazil.

A: By Kathleen Ryan O’Connor, Fortune Small Business contributor
Dear Kenneth: An open-source e-commerce application can be a boon for cash-strapped entrepreneurs hoping to become the next Amazon.com (AMZN).

Barrie North, a partner in JoomlaShack, a company that produces templates and customization for the open-source Joomla software, says small-business owners have a lot of great choices these days.

Well-known names include Ecommerce from Network Solutions (the popular MonsterCommerce software became part of Network Solutions in 2006), OsCommerce, Shopify, Virtuemart, Volusion, Zen Cart - and there’s still plenty more.

But don’t forget that when it comes to open-source software, free doesn’t exactly mean “without cost.” Expect to pay hosting fees of at least $30 to $50 per month, or transaction processing fees, and design, consulting or other fees might be necessary for the more complicated solutions. There is also the less tangible cost of the time you’ll need to learn the software.

“If your technical level is e-mail, you are probably going to have to spend $500-$1,000 to help set your site up,” says North, who also blogs at CompassDesigns.net, and wrote Joomla: A User’s Guide. “But if you can set up your own hosting account or know FTP - file transfer protocol - you could probably do it yourself in a couple of hours” for minimal cost.

For the average small-business owner, a closed-system, hosted solution will be “the fastest way to go online,” North says - but he adds that customers are expecting more than just a basic virtual checkout aisle these days.

“You need more than just a shopping cart in 2008,” he says.

The best shopping experiences will feature “richer content,” such as forums and blogs in addition to a user-friendly checkout mechanism. He encourages small-business owners to look for an integrated content management system that will incorporate all of the above.

Michael Bloch, an Australian tech blogger who writes at “Taming the Beast,” prefers Zen Cart.

“It’s based on OSCommerce, which has been around for many years,” he says. “The Zen Cart solution has a broad range of features, is very flexible and well supported. Like OSCommerce, there’s an active community associated with the application, so if you have problems setting it up or in general usage, chances are there’s info out there on the issue, or he can post a question to the Zen Cart forums. Zen cart also has many add-ons available, most of them free. If the reader needed custom applications made, there are many developers around who are experienced in modifying the application.”

Roy Banks, president of Authorize.net, the Internet payment processor acquired last year by Cybersource, says establishing an e-commerce presence can be especially challenging for small businesses.

“There really isn’t a quick and dirty answer,” he says.

He also notes that open source isn’t a cheap fix. Integration and development isn’t free, “and with a lot of open source you need to upgrade to other things,” Banks says. “You get what you pay for. That axiom will always hold true.”