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If you want to create your own Amazon.com, then you should try iCat's Electronic Commerce Suite 3.0 Professional Edition. iCat started developing e-commerce software in 1993, when Amazon.com was just an idea in Jeff Bezo's brain.

However, the Electronic Commerce Suite Professional Edition is not for a small Web site because you will need to shell out $9,995. But, if you have a company with lots of products, then the Commerce Suite will have all the features you need. If you go to the www.icat.com Web site, you can see several demos of iCat catalogs, including an online book store. Actual customer catalogs are also shown there. For those with less sophisticated Web catalog needs, iCat offers a Standard Edition for $3,495

The Commerce Suite requires experience with a scripting language called Carbo (iCat's proprietary language, which is similar to SQL). The language is not rocket science, but you will still need to spend time getting used to it (the Carbo reference manual is 300 pages). The Carbo code editor has a wizard and syntax checking, but it is definitely not a full-fledged development environment.

You will also need to understand SQL and database administration. In other words, the typical on-line proprietor will probably need to hire a programmer. In fact, the iCat Web site has a list of ISPs that develop and host iCat catalogs for businesses.

The Commerce Suite requires 60 MB of free hard drive space and 16 MB of RAM. The software supports Win95, Win NT and even the Power Mac.

The Commerce Suite uses the popular shopping-cart motif. That is, if the user likes the product, he will click it and the item will be listed on the shopping-cart page. When the user is finished, he will click an icon to verify the order and then receive an e-mail confirmation.

Actually, the Commerce Suite is not used just for on-line store fronts. Rather, you can use this software for corporate Intranets. This is what Boeing did as it created a catalog for its company training programs - giving detailed information on courses, instructors and schedules, as well as allowing employees to register for courses and download course materials.

To create your on-line catalogs, you will use the iCat Commerce Publisher, which is where you will do most of your work. You will not use a proprietary interface; instead, the Publisher runs from your browser. Thus, you can develop a catalog with programmers who are located in different locations.

To run your catalogs, you will need a Web server. iCat supports servers from Microsoft, Netscape, O'Reilly and Quarterdeck, as well as many flavors of UNIX. Also, iCat has provided its own server. But, if you want to use the iCat Data Entry Manager (explained below), then you will need to install the iCat Web Server. (In other words, you should install this server.)

With Publisher, you will hook your catalogs to two databases:

  1. Staging Database: Used to create and manage the test database. In most cases, you will use the Data Entry Manager to create the staging database. The staging database has the following pre-defined fields for each data item: Company, Item Name, Identifier (SKU or ID#), Abstract (description) and Main Price. You can then create your own custom fields for both text and numerical data.
  2. Live Database: Taking the staging database and publishing it "live" on the Web. It is from this data that iCat will dynamically create catalog pages for users, as well as store order and tracking information. iCat provides a Sybase SQL Anywhere ODBC database to accomplish this.
This two-tiered structure makes sense - you may want to make modifications to your database without having it posted to the Web. However, if you are not careful you might run into problems. That is, if you post to the two databases simultaneously and do not keep track of the changes, this can lead to chaos. Thankfully, the iCat manual has procedures to keep your databases in sync.

As the name implies, the Data Entry Manager allows you to enter, import and update the data items that will appear in your catalog. But, if you want to import anything other than the Sybase Anywhere ODBC database, you will need to map the schema of your database to match the Commerce Suite.

You can organize your data items into four levels: sections, subsections, categories and subcategories. If you have a large database, it would behoove you to divide your catalog into some understandable hierarchy; if not, you will likely have a nightmare.

You can even place promotional information in the database:

  • Sale Pricing: For a period of time, you can have a sale on items, sections or the entire catalog.
  • Featured Items: This gives higher visibility to certain items in the catalog.
  • Replacement Items: iCat will cross-sell replacement products for those items that are out of stock.
  • Alternate Items: iCat will specify alternative items to cross-sell along with selected items.
  • Accessories: iCat will specify accessories to sell with selected items.
  • Volume Discounts: You can reduce the price based on quantity purchased. So, you might say, "If you buy more than 10 items, you will get 10% off," or "If you buy two items, you will get one free."
  • Member Discount: If the user registers with your company, you can provide lower prices.
In order to add pizazz to your catalog, you will use templates. Templates provide the overall layout and appearance of each page in your catalog. iCat has the Template Manager, which provides the following templates:
  • Layout Templates: There are four template sets. First, you can have a table of contents, which is the first page the user sees (there is also an option for a search feature). Next, there is the Directory page, which shows a list of the categories or subcategories from the section the user selected from the table of contents. Third, you have the Catalog page, which has summary information (name, descriptions, price, etc) for each item in a category or subcategory. Finally, there is the item page, which has detailed information for a selected product.
  • Template Interfaces: With these, you can define the placement of graphics, such as backgrounds, headers, bars and buttons. Although inserting custom graphics into the templates is fairly straightforward, it will be much quicker if you use the default graphic elements of iCat.
  • Template Plug-Ins: These can add rich functionality to your catalog. You can create Template Plug-ins using both HTML and the Carbo language.
You can then establish the following transaction options:
  • Payment methods: You can set a security method, such as SSL (secure socket layer). But a major advantage is that the Commerce Suite allows you to specify a variety of e-commerce payment vendors, such as Open Market, First Virtual and CyberCash.
  • Shipping methods: You can specify any options, such as standard, two-day and next day.
  • Tax methods: You can specify sales tax methods by zip code or state. The Commerce Suite has a trial version of TaxWare, which is used to calculate sales taxes.
The Commerce Suite has a variety of tools that allow you to analyze traffic statistics. Using the Sales Manager module, you can look at reports on orders, customers and item tracking (which shows the number of hits and the percentage of time the user spent viewing each item).

The manuals are well written. Included is a sample catalog, which makes for an excellent tutorial.

This is a really exciting product. There are many templates. The Publisher uses the familiar browser interface. You can hook to many online payment systems. The list goes on and on. I wish I had my own bookstore, so I could utilize the power of this software.

About the Author
Tom Taulli is the CEO of Blueprint Interactive (www.bpia.com), which develops Internet applications for the enterprise. He can be reached at ttaulli@bpia.com

 

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