E-commerce solutions

Erol (Electronic Retail Online) works rather like Actinic's offering, in that it has two key components. There's a PC-based application for designing the pages, defining the products, placing them in a hierarchy and processing orders. And there's a server-side component - again a bunch of Perl scripts - which takes the data handed to it via FTP and allows the world at large to see your pages.

Aside from the developer version there are two main product variants. The Small Business edition gives you tools for designing and editing your site, keeping track of who's bought what, and managing your product inventory. It also includes SSL support and retail tools that give you the ability to have different variants (e.g. sizes or colours) for a given product. The Business edition builds on the Small Business version by allowing you, for example, to give customers their own logins, use multiple payment gateways and integrate with popular accounting packages such as Sage and QuickBooks.

When you fire up the product, you're presented with a fairly typical three-pane window. The right-hand pane is the main section, where the detail of whatever you've clicked in the other panes is shown (and can be edited). On the left-hand side are panes containing the site structure and page summary, along with a second summary pane showing additional information such as which products appear on the currently selected page.

The majority of items in the site structure pane relate to the settings of the site you're building. There's a section for templates - as you'd expect, there are plenty to choose from - then a collection of settings for the stylesheet, store/site title, shopping basket design and operation and checkout. The latter is a pretty hefty section. The product is happy to work with multiple delivery countries you get to specify currencies here, sales tax rates, the various options for shipping to various places and so on. The package can also, provided you've bought the appropriate option, update its exchange rates automatically. Both on-line (card) and off-line (cheque, bank transfer, COD, account, etc) payment methods are supported, and can be configured in the preferences section.

Despite all of this depth and detail, creating an online store from scratch is pretty straightforward. Placing products in the system is simply a case of defining them and then placing them on pages - you can add pages as you see fit, including splitting sections into multiple pages with an 'overview' parent page. Links between pages are sensibly handled too, which means, for example, that you can place a product into multiple categories without having to define it twice.

The main problem area is the way the interface is put together: on our Windows XP test machine we didn't always get a pop-up telling us the purpose of the button you just rolled the mouse over - which is a bit of a pain because you don't necessarily realise that a button with just a red square on it means Add product item or that one with a green square means Add display item. Right-clicking items doesn't work launch context-sensitive menus either.

Overall, Erol is an acceptable system built on solid concepts. It is extremely flexible and, by-and-large, is easy to use. It's cheap too, but those interface niggles let down an otherwise highly competent product.


A flexible tool with a decent level of functionality but let down by some GUI issues

Server requirements: Windows NT or Unix/Linux server, Perl 5.004 or later Client requirements: Pentium-compatible PC (2GHz P4 recommended), Windows 2000/XP, 128MB RAM (512MB recommended), 400MB free disk space