Domino.Merchant: surprising innovations

Domino.Merchant: surprising innovations

Lotus' latest effort, Domino.Merchant 2.0 Server Pack, is an attempt at producing a Web storefront server that can be used by small businesses. It has almost succeeded, with some surprising results - both good and bad.

Domino.Merchant stands up well when compared to storefronts from Intershop, iCat and O'Reilly & Associates, which all claim to deliver small-business Web-commerce solutions.

Merchant is far from perfect, but it should be on the short list of products to evaluate for small online storefronts.

First, the surprisingly good news. Domino. Merchant 2.0 is one of the easiest storefront servers to set up. Indeed, it is the easiest Notes server I've ever installed. It takes far longer than the advertised 15 minutes, but this isn't a big deal. There are a few simple questions to answer before the automated installation routine installs a Domino Server and a Notes administrator client, along with the Merchant product.

The installation includes setting up a secure Web server, something of a chore in almost every other Web storefront product.

Also surprising is how little you have to know about Notes to run your Merchant setup. This is in direct contrast to Microsoft's Merchant Server solution, for which you need lots of intimate knowledge of Internet Information Server, SQL Server and the inner workings of Windows NT.

Almost everything in Domino.Merchant's setup can be done from a browser. Users of a native Notes client can't do any shopping whatsoever: they need to access the storefront via a browser to check out and pay for their merchandise. There are some nice features that show off Notes' rich heritage of managing documents and databases. For example, you can specify that changes to your store take effect immediately, or you can route store changes to a queue where a manager must first approve and subsequently publish them.

Once you change the store, you can click on a link that will take you directly to the updated page to view the consequences of your changes.

When it comes time to add a new image to your product catalogue, you can upload the image file in your Web browser by browsing your local file system to find the appropriate file.

Finally, you can set up your store to track packages via the United Parcel Service's tracking Web site.

All of these features are, to my knowledge, unique among the competition. Merchant comes with an innovative Java-based wizard to set up your store called SiteCreator. You'll need either a Notes client (Version 4.6.1) or a relatively recent browser (Lotus supplies a CD with Internet Explorer 4.01 and Navigator 4.04). You'll also require some patience to navigate through the several dozen screens before you get your store going.

I liked SiteCreator more than other products' wizards: it does more things and is more complex, but once I learned how to navigate around it, I found it easier to use than the Intershop and Net.Commerce administration routines.

Now for the bad news. Getting your entire catalogue and product list into Merchant will be tedious, mainly because you have to enter products one at a time.

The data entry screens are well-designed and do not take all that much work - compared to IBM's Net.Commerce entry screens - but still, there isn't an automated way to import items from an existing database. Even if you track your product catalogue and inventory in a Notes database, you still must manually enter the data. That is a major defect, and a surprising one, too.

Merchant comes with evaluation copies of both Tax-Ware and CyberCash server software. Getting both set up isn't simple, mainly because there is inadequate documentation and examples.

Speaking of documentation, the Merchant docs are spread out among three slim- printed volumes and the online help available within the SiteCreator tool. This makes learning how to use the product an exercise in finding the right reference. And I found plenty of errors in the printed documents, which was annoying.

There are some other issues with Merchant. You'll want to both view and administer your store at screen resolutions higher than 640 x 480. Shoppers with smaller screens will find much of your storefront off the right-hand side of their browsers.

Much of the screen real estate is occupied with navigation frames that I found cumbersome. There are some very limited options to change the location of the navigation bars via SiteCreator.

Setting up the built-in contact manager is a bit of a chore, requiring some work using the Domino administration tools. And a suggestion to restart your server after "every few thousand transactions to ensure optimal performance and use of memory" is troublesome, to say the least.

Finally, there are some error and advice messages that appear on-screen, then disappear when you start your Domino.Merchant server. Finding these after they've disappeared isn't well-documented, in case you actually want to implement their suggestions for improving the performance of the server.

Overall, Domino.Merchant is impressive: those new to Notes can handle its operations readily, and there are some nice features which are missing in other commerce products.

But the lack of bulk import features, and the unfinished quality of its documentation, will hamper its overall acceptance.

The Bottom Line

Domino.Merchant 2.0 Server Pack

Domino.Merchant is a low-end Web storefront creation and management suite based on Notes/Domino. It comes with evaluation copies of the CyberCash payment server and the TaxWare sales-tax server.

Pros: Easiest setup of any Notes server; all store creation operations run from within browser; integrated United Parcel Service package tracking; secure Web server integrationCons: Lacks data import feature; populating storefront catalogue with products and making changes is tedious; documentation doesn't always match actual softwarePlatforms: Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3Price: $6239 (single processor); $16,059 (multiprocessor)Lotus DevelopmentTel (1800 252 408Fax ((02) 9299

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