osCommerce Review 2021
A functional — but dated — blast from the past.
What is osCommerce?
Stylized with a lower-case O, osCommerce is a free open-source PHP-based ecommerce CMS. It was first developed as “The Exchange Project” (founded and led by Harald Ponce de Leon) and saw a 1.0 release in 2000 before being renamed in the following year. It was a pioneering system in some ways, and it saw somewhat consistent (if not always notable) development up until 2014 — since then, unfortunately, it has stalled somewhat.
Requiring PHP and MySQL to run, it has built up an extensively library of add-ons (the website currently boasts of 8,832 free add-ons, and the number has changed since the last time the page was cached, so it’s clearly a live figure), and notes over 20,804 live sites. Being free to use (if you have the hosting for it), it isn’t costly to try — but is it worth your time? Let’s take a look.
osCommerce Benefits Overview
As with a system such as OpenCart, the biggest benefit of osCommerce (and the only one of note, in truth) is that it’s free to use. If you have hosting space suitable for an ecommerce platform, you can install and use it without needing to pay a licencing fee of any kind. That also means you can tweak it as much as you’d like — alter the code, or even rework it completely.
Additionally, if you’re inclined to be particularly generous, you can frame the relative inactivity of recent years as an indication of platform stability. It’s unlikely to suddenly change in a major way and leave you unfamiliar with the new interface, for instance. That said, there’s no guarantee that the add-ons that have accrued over the years will remain functional, and the dated interface and feature set should definitely give you pause (more on this shortly).
As noted, osCommerce is entirely free, and there are no dedicated support or hosting tiers of the kind you can get through systems such as OpenCart. The website does recommend a hosting partner in 1&1 internet, though — it has a section for hosting partners but there’s just the one entry (it gets average to decent reviews, so it’s likely to prove adequate if you don’t have enterprise-level needs).
osCommerce Features Summary
Following basic installation (which could be a lot easier, but that’s an issue for another section), osCommerce is very bare-bones. It’s entirely functional as an ecommerce system, so you can naturally add and remove products, view orders, and create simple reports, but anything beyond that will require extensive customization (whether through manual configuration or the installation of various add-ons).
And while it might seem unfair to disparage a free system for its lack of features, I’m not comparing it to high-end systems like Shopify or Magento Commerce — I’m comparing it to other free systems such as WooCommerce or OpenCart, and the comparison is very unflattering (both functionally and aesthetically).
The admin dashboard for the most recent version of osCommerce (18.104.22.168, released in 2014) provides the following categories in the left-hand menu column: Catalog, Configuration, Customers, Localization, Locations / Taxes, Modules, Orders, Reports, and Tools. Before selecting a category, you can view revenue and customer total graphs, read about the latest news updates and add-ons released, and check for updates.
Aside from being sparse, the osCommerce looks ancient. Everything from the fonts used to the design aesthetic is reminiscent of decades-old software. It may be that the osCommerce community simply doesn’t care about the look of the system, but it leaves a very poor impression and suggests a lack of thought and/or care being put into the UX design.
Could you polish the dashboard to make it feel more modern using manual work and add-ons? As with any other element of the system, yes — it’s open-source, after all — but I’m not sure why you’d bother when there are open-source systems that are just as flexible while looking vastly superior by default.
There are some free themes available through the Apps Marketplace, but not all that many, and they’re not very inviting: there are no previews provided by default, so if you want to know what a theme actually looks like (i.e. you want something more than a basic description) then you’ll need to hope that the creator added a preview page in the content. If not, you’ll only know what it looks like when you try it.
That’s frustrating enough, but then you must factor in that the themes all come across as extremely basic, are not regularly updated (most of those for the latest version haven’t been updated since the system was), and are not guaranteed to work with any versions other than those they’re listed for (an initial 2.3 theme might well not function with 22.214.171.124, for instance). Quite frankly, the whole thing is a mess.
If you’re looking for a blog section, look elsewhere. You could use an add-on to configure a basic blog for an osCommerce store, but even the most straightforward and recent add-ons seem to be plagued by issues (some blogging add-ons date back over a decade, and one from 2016 has various faults listed in the description).
Even if you could get past the initial difficulties, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be able to do anything of consequence with your new blog. If you can’t optimize SEO for your content and maximize your audience, what’s the point of posting at all? If you decide (for some odd reason) that osCommerce is absolutely the right blogging platform for you, be prepared to put a colossal amount of work into getting it working.
As for general store content (product descriptions, homepage copy, etc.), it only fares marginally better. Everything is almost comically clunky. You’re forced to contend with the most rudimentary folder structures, and though the options you’ll need (stock levels, pricing, everything standard) are all present, that’s the absolutely minimum to be expected from an ecommerce CMS.
Plugins & Extensions
I noted in the intro that there are 8,832 free add-ons available through the osCommerce Apps Marketplace, so you certainly have choices — but they’re not necessarily good choices. The first thing I noticed about the Marketplace is that the categories are clearly not aimed at beginners: you can glean what the “Reports” section is about, but what of “InfoBoxes” or “Zones”?
And once you’ve figured out what the sections are for, you must contend with the weak, inconsistent and sometimes confusing descriptions. Take the following for an example: “Fading header CE BS4/3 V1.2. A simple addon to let you place a Fading header on your site.” Is a Fading header a specific type of header? Does it refer to an image, or a heading? And why is the version information in the title?
There’s zero social proof, and there doesn’t appear to be much (if any) quality control on offer. It may be an excellent resource for someone completely familiar with all aspects of the system and possessing the expertise to filter through the noise to find something specific, but for anyone else it’s likely to cause more harm than good (despite its evident variety).
The payment process has native support for PayPal and Sage Pay — not a wide selection by any means, but given PayPal’s ubiquity, it’s not incredibly restrictive. The Apps Marketplace has a range of Payment Modules through which you can configure support for other gateways (though, as ever, it’s far from a given that you’ll be able to get them working).
As for the checkout part specifically, it’s utilitarian. You can create a new account, log into an existing account, or use a PayPal login, but there’s no default option to use a guest account (skip the detailed account creation). And given that shoppers often get second thoughts when viewing their carts or heading to the checkout stage, the style issues are particular grating.
If you want to do anything complex with shipping, you’ll need to (yes, you guessed it) turn to add-ons or do some manual development. It’s somewhat of a concern that many of the most important add-ons seem to be very outdated (Checkout by Amazon, for instance, was last updated in 2012), but they might still work — it’s simply difficult to recommend trusting to that.
Everything is in place to do basic product configuration, but there’s no import/export functionality — there is, however, a CSV import add-on that was last updated just 5 months ago, so if you want to directly move product listings over from another platform then you’ll be able to do so. I’m not sure why you’d want to, though, unless you have strong masochistic inclinations.
From the admin dashboard, you can define the various fields required for each customer account (through the Configuration section) as well as view the information of existing customers (through the Customers section). It’s possible to create customer groups and do more complex customization, but there isn’t much else to say about it. It’s adequate.
Ecommerce Comparison Features
Free to Install
Free to Install
Ease Of Use
If you checked the dashboard section, you may recall that there was no marketing-centric section listed, and that’s because there’s no baked-in functionality designed specifically for marketers. Worse still, the range of marketing add-ons is distinctly unimpressive — I’ll elaborate further in the coming segments.
The default URL structure is not SEO-friendly. There is an option to use SEO URLs included in the initial download, and it’s actually fairly formidable, but it’s also intimidatingly complex. You might not get as many customization options in other platforms, but having a simple toggle to generate URLs in accordance with best SEO URL practices is going to be sufficient for the average seller — a table of 17 distinct options (some true/false, others with values), on the other hand, is likely to cause confusion.
The system also doesn’t produce distinct meta titles for products unless you install a suitable add-on. This is in particular is a dismal omission. Overall, it’s hard to rate osCommerce highly for SEO — it’s simply too far behind the times.
There’s nothing useful to be found in osCommerce when it comes to PPC traffic. There’s an add-on that can be used to create landing URLs for specific ads, but there’s no reason to do so if you have Google Analytics configured correctly. While you don’t really need your ecommerce platform to offer anything interesting for PPC, other platforms have options for automatically generating ads (either natively or through up-to-date add-ons), something that can be handy.
You’ll likely be able to get social sharing buttons added through an add-on, but things look sparse beyond that. For instance, the most recent social login add-on was last updated 3 years ago and was built for osCommerce 2.2 (dating back about a decade).
Realistically, even if you could get everything set up for sophisticated social integration, would you really want to sully your social media accounts by association? On the bright side, there are fairly recent add-ons for customer reviews, including one for Google Customer Reviews. This isn’t a big selling point, but it’s notable regardless.
If you’re looking for interesting CRO features (variant comparison testing, CTA templates, etc.) then look elsewhere, because you won’t find anything like that in osCommerce. You can try assembling a collection of small add-ons, but they differ so extensively (in design and functionality) that it wouldn’t plausibly be worth your time.
The basic system comes with a Newsletter Manager in the Tools section. You can choose the type of newsletter, compose it in a simple text box, and lock it before sending it to selected customers. If you’re happy sending plain text emails, it will suit your purposes, but if you want to include any kind of rich media then you won’t have a good experience.
Not only is osCommerce a self-hosted system, but it also doesn’t provide any kind of optional professional hosting service (something that developers of free systems often do). Consequently, there’s nothing much to be said about this area: you have complete freedom to arrange hosting through whichever service you prefer. The recommended company (1&1) gets average reviews, so if you don’t have strict requirements, it should suffice.
There are various add-ons providing enhanced Google Analytics support (providing tables in the dashboard, etc.) or support for things such as Facebook Pixels, though (as ever) they’re dated and likely to cause some installation issues. Of course, most of your analytics activity is likely to come directly through the GA dashboard, and you shouldn’t have issues installing the tracking code — you’ll need to do it manually, though, which — while easy — isn’t ideal.
While the osCommerce site has a section for supported partners, it only contains one: Ozeworks, a developer based in New York. You can always look for developers through sites like Upwork, but you’ll have no guarantee of their quality. Alternatively, you can use any developer with PHP skills (they should be able to figure things out).
In principle, osCommerce is a solid platform for development, but the context of the dated marketplace makes it difficult to justify investing in it as a future-proof solution. It would be far better (and potentially more lucrative) to commit to developing extensions for bigger systems.
For a one-time payment of 49 euros, you can become an osCommerce Ambassador for life. This provides you with various forum perks that aren’t particularly useful outside of that area, but it does grant you access to the Ambassadors forum channel — if you’re looking for assistance from dedicated osCommerce users, that might be the place to get it.
Beyond the forum (which is admittedly decent), support is all but nonexistent. There’s no dedicated support channel, and the best you can do when it comes to documentation is check the osCommerce library — unfortunately, it’s aimed entirely at developers, so the information you find there will be of little use to you if you don’t have a background in development.
If you want beginner-friendly instructions to help you get set up, you can either enter the forum and ask people (which is free, but not guaranteed to work) or check sites like YouTube for video guides (also free, but woefully outdated in most cases, it seems). Really, if you’re not comfortable editing PHP, it’s best to avoid trying osCommerce altogether.
osCommerce is a fully functioning ecommerce website builder but the lack of updates means this platform has very much been left behind. osCommerce doesn't offer the features, customization, extensions or analytics that other platforms such as Shopify and SquareSpace now provide. This is a great (free) platform for a personal or small-scale project but if you want to build a business, you'll be better served by premium ecommerce builders.