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2023 Edition

Why Open Source Commerce?

by Michael Bromley
Michael Bromley

I've been building for the web for over 15 years - mainly focusing on e-commerce applications, content management and open source. Now I'm building Vendure, an open-source headless commerce framework with a focus on developer productivity. I strongly believe in the mission to bring joy through great developer experience and open source tools. I'm originally from England but for the past 10 years I've been based in beautiful Vienna, Austria.

There's a movement taking place. Open source is displacing proprietary software at an increasing rate. Of course, for decades open source solutions have been the norm in certain domains - server infrastructure, web developer tools, databases, etc. But in recent years OSS has come for the SaaS platforms too.

For seemingly every SaaS incumbent like Calendly, there's an upcoming OSS challenger like Cal.com. And so it goes with Documenso challenging Docusign, Chatwoot challenging Intercom, Typesense challenging Algolia, and on and on.

How is this playing out in the world of ecommerce? Ecommerce actually has a rich history of OSS solutions gaining significant traction - from the mighty Magento to WooCommerce to Shopware and more recent challengers like Saleor and Vendure (the latter of which I am the primary maintainer).

Will these OSS solutions come to kill off the likes of Shopify, BigCommerce and Commercetools?

In short - no. The ecommerce market is vast, and the needs of merchants are many and varied. The advantages of SaaS are clear: no servers to run, no upgrades to perform, and most basic needs met at the click of a button. So why do OSS commerce platforms continue to thrive?

In short: SaaS platforms have inherent limitations which are baked-in as a tradeoff for the conveniences they provide. When a merchant's requirements go beyond those limitations, OSS platforms are the solution. While "apps" and "extensions" can go some way to accommodating custom requirements, there's a point where you're going to end up with a tangled mess of extensions that almost-but-not-quite solve all your needs.

Then two things come up: 1) that ugly complexity you were hoping to avoid is here anyway, and 2) costs. Yes, the SaaS platform fees together with dozens of extension licenses start to add up!

So how do OSS platforms fill this gap?

They provide the building blocks that allow developers to craft a custom solution to fit the exact requirements of the merchant. Particular workflows and business processes that are nigh on impossible to support on most SaaS platforms - think B2B or marketplace features - can be built by developers on OSS platforms. Can't find the exact right pre-made functionality? You can always build it!

At least, that's the theory. In reality, the quality and developer-friendliness of OSS platforms vary widely. Some of the older OSS platforms are notorious for being difficult to develop for. Oh yeah, and developers are expensive too. And you're probably gonna have to run a server now so good luck with that.

Alright, so how can we mitigate the downsides of OSS, namely development cost and infrastructure? This is what we're attempting to solve with Vendure. We're using a modern tech stack combined with thoughtful, pragmatic API design that allows developers to build in a fraction of the time needed on other OSS platforms. We provide sensible defaults that allow you to set up a simple commerce app out-of-the-box while allowing deep customization of everything from the data model to the order process which enables companies to build any kind of commerce application.

In terms of infrastructure - yes you still need to run your own server, but Vendure is surprisingly light-weight (we run our demo instance on a $5 server) and works incredibly well with containers which lets you run your entire app on a modern, containerized, scalable hosting platform.

In testament to this is the fact that our users include almost every conceivable type of commerce business - from Fortune 500 enterprises to food-waste startups to crowd-investing platforms to sharing economy marketplaces.

In conclusion, open source commerce doesn't always make sense. If a SaaS solution fits your needs and your budget - click the button and get on with running your business. But when you find yourself struggling to make that SaaS one-size-fits-all work for you, it might be time to build. And if you are going to build, choose a platform like Vendure which will get you there in record time.

Michael Bromley

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