E-commerce solutions

Actinic is one of the oldest e-commerce packages on the block and it's still going strong. It's ten years old this year (2006), is currently on version 7 and has thousands of users both big and small, and a large, mature developer community.

The package is a two-component entity: a server-based set of Perl scripts that handle the running of the Web site and a Windows-based application that you use to edit the product list, build the pages and process orders.

The entry-level member of the family is Catalog. This gives you everything you need for a basic e-commerce site - hierarchical pages of products, the ability for a product to appear on multiple pages (an iPod might come under Music players and Consumer electronics, for instance), attribute-based searching, and the ability to remember customers on their return.

The higher-end Business package includes everything in Catalog plus extras such as support for downloadable products (software, music files, videos and the like) as well as integration with accounting software - QuickBooks and Sage Line 50 are supported at the moment. Business also brings facilities such as 'two for the price of one' offers. The final mainstream product is Business Multi-User, which has the functionality of Business plus the ability for a number of PC users to process orders simultaneously without trampling over each other and duplicating effort.

The user interface is a breeze to use. Right-clicking on something pops up an appropriate menu, while left-clicking on it displays the item's detail page so that you can edit its parameters. Products can be basic one-offs or you can get more complicated and define variants (jumpers in different colours, for instance), prices that depend on the quantity purchased and so on. The look and feel of the final website is based on a selection of pre-designed themes and templates but even if you don't get on with what's on offer, building your own isn't difficult. Multi-currency operation is supported too, but only in the sense that you get to choose what your local currency actually is - you can't give your customers the option to switch between pounds and euros for instance.

The main screen is a three-pane display. In the top left you have your site structure; in the top right is the detail screen in which you edit the parameters of the products in your store; and the bottom pane, which extends the width of the window, shows a preview of your pages, reflecting any changes you might make. When you've got everything as you'd like it, you simply hit 'Upload' and the package sends your changes to the Web site.

Processing orders is pretty straightforward too: you hit 'Retrieve Orders' and it pulls new orders down from the website and displays them for you to deal with; you get a line per order in the summary screen but can double-click an item to see in-depth information about it and/or update the status or send an email to the customer when you've taken some action.

Actinic has been around for so long, and has thus been subject to so many changes over the years, that it's bound to be a good choice as an e-commerce platform. The interface is intuitive, the website components just seem to work and the prices are affordable.


A long-standing e-commerce product that is regularly updated and is simple but flexible

Server requirements: Windows NT or Unix/Linux server, Perl 5.004 or later Client requirements: Pentium-compatible PC Windows 98 or later, 64MB RAM (128MB preferred) 100MB free disk space