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Book Review: Beginning E-Commerce: With VB, ASP, ADO and MTS

  • November 19, 2002
  • By John Percival
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E-commerce is the name given to the business process of selling yourproducts, goods, and services over a Web browser. In its simplest form, itallows your company's product catalog to be hosted on a Web server so thatcustomers and potential customers can visit your site, see what you haveto sell and then place orders. The majority of e-commerce sites that sellto general consumers ask you to pay for the items you want using a creditcard, and so they present forms that can safely and securely capture thisinformation, and perform automatic credit card authorization without humanintervention.

As each e-commerce site is different, each reader of this book will beaiming for a different goal. You could be a friend of a small businessowner who wants a simple e-commerce site, or you could be a consultanttrying to build the next big thing in an as-yet-untapped sector of themarket.

Whoever you are, by the time you reach the end of the book, you will havea basic e-commerce site running on a Microsoft Windows NT Server 4, usingMicrosoft SQL Server 7 for the database, and with software comprisingcomponents written in Microsoft Visual Basic 6 and Active Server Pages.

1.How did you come to find yourself writing a book for Wrox?

It's always been something I wanted to do! The timing was lucky, though. I'd just left my old job to set-up my own Internet startup so while my new business was getting up to speed I had the time to realize that ambition. I'd contributed some work to a couple of other Wrox titles before "Beginning E-commerce" and written for a few Web sites, but this was my first major writing project.

2. In this book you create two object libraries, WroxCommerce and WroxProcessor, what are the main features?

"WroxCommerce" is used to drive the cart and catalog activities of the store, effectively it's all the bits and pieces that lets the customer see what's for sale, put things in the shopping cart and order whatever he or she wants to buy. WroxCommerce also handles the management of customer information, recommendations and suggestions and a lot of the cool toys that we build into the components as we work through the book.

"WroxProcessor" controls what happens to the order after the order has been placed in the system. It's the implementation of what's called an "order processing pipeline" - it takes the order and passes it between all the interested parties, such as suppliers, warehouse staff, accounts, and so on.

3. How did you build the object libraries so they are able to function with ASP?

I can't take any credit for that one, it was all down to Microsoft! Active Server Pages makes extensive use of COM technology, so all we do in the book is use Visual Basic to build COM objects that can be called directly from ASP.

4. What should all good E-Commerce sites have?

You'll have to read the book to find out! Seriously though, there are a few things that you simple have to have. You need a logical structure to base your product catalog on, and you need highly intuitive tools to let visitors find stuff in that catalog. Most people visiting an e-commerce site have a pretty clear idea of what they're looking for so ideally you want to let them find the product or products as quickly as possible.

5. How did you create an online community in the website?

As the case study in the book is about building a coffee machine and consumables e-tailer, we wanted to build a community around people interested in coffee. The main focus of the community in the book is based on a discussion paradigm. To do this, we took some components from "Doug Dean Software & Consulting" and used them to provide tools for visitors to chat with other visitors about coffee. We also created a mailing list using Microsoft's bCentral ListBot and alluded to that fact that original content submitted by visitors and business partners of the company would also help build the community.

6. How have you managed to make it possible to recommend products to customers?

In the book we use a pretty straightforward method of creating a matrix such that if you're looking at one product, you can scan down the matrix to find other products that people may be interested in. We build that manually in the book, but the ideal here is to get something close to what Amazon have managed to do with their recommendations. Their system works on similar principles, but they have some very smart processing tools in the background that sifts through their sales data and builds the matrix for them.

However its done, making recommendations to customers is always a neat idea as it draws e-commerce sites away from this fairly artificial category-based structure. This category-based structure became the convention as e-commerce storefronts were modelled on bricks-and-mortar stores and what recommendations let you do is move around the store in the path grounded in your interest and the interests of your peers.

7. Could you briefly list all of the features 'Jo's Coffee' web site has by the end of the book?

Sure Obviously it has the cart and catalog stuff to let people buy things, but we also have a search engine based on SQL Server's Full-Text Indexing functionality, featured products list, recommendations and suggestions, an extensible order-processing pipeline that can be integrated into existing applications, the ability to extract data from the system in XML as well as push data back into the system as XML, the ability for customers to review the status past and current orders, some community features and a few some other cool bits and pieces. Altogether, it's a great foundation for building a complete e-commerce system on, but it's also possible to take the lessons learned from building some of the features and add those features to an existing e-commerce solution.

8. Where do you see E-Commerce going in the next year?

Oooh, good question! Looking at it from the UK, which is my home turf so it's easier for me to say, I'd say we'll see a broadening of the types of stuff you can buy online. At the moment, it's fairly limited to mainstream, established stuff like books and CDs.

9. What is your next exciting project going to be. Any more books in the pipeline?

I have two stores going live in the next couple of weeks based on the components we building the book, and another one going live in the summer. Aside from that, I'm going to be concentrating on getting funding for my startup and hopefully working on my novel.

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