Actinic
Actinic Online – our initial review

Actinic Online – our initial review

08th August 2011

1.     What is it?

Actinic Online is an e-commerce service formed from the new strategic alliance between Actinic Software Ltd and Oxatis, France’s leading supplier of e-commerce software to small and medium businesses.

Initially, Actinic Online is a rebrand of Oxatis’s established service for the UK market. However, we can expect to see significant changes and developments as the alliance’s strengths are harnessed.

2.     The Alliance

2.1     Actinic

We’re very familiar with Actinic already, of course – the business, its products, and its management team. Actinic has a very good reputation and a high profile within the UK market, and its products are regarded as reliable choices by small and medium retailers wanting to operate online shops.

Until the launch of Actinic Online, its core products have used an architecture which appeals to many retailers but which certain others may find restrictive (see “SaaS vs desktop architecture” below).

Actinic is very strong in its home market but has little presence outside the UK. This focus on the UK has actually been a strength in its own right – developing and supporting an international product tends to reduce its appeal to UK customers. By addressing the UK market alone Actinic has always been able to tailor its products to meet UK-centric requirements of shipping, tax, payment gateways and product support.

Actinic is one of the few e-commerce software businesses with a strong physical presence within the UK. The management team, sales, marketing, support and operations functions are all UK-based, and much of its development effort is UK-based too. Our own clients have very often been attracted and reassured by this.

In recent years Actinic has broadened its scope from pure e-commerce products to include hosting services, EPOS (shop tills) equipment and software, a payment processing service, and a high-volume version of its desktop software for its biggest retailer clients.

Actinic has, in fact, already offered an online/hosted e-commerce service for several years in the guise of Actinic Express. However, this has never had the success of its desktop-based products, and a decision about its future has been expected for some time. Now, the arrival of the new service ends the life of Actinic Express and replaces it with Actinic Online.

2.2     Oxatis

We looked briefly at the Oxatis service a couple of years ago when we had discussions with its UK sales team.

Just as Actinic has been a UK-focussed business, so Oxatis has seen a lot of success in its own home market of France, and reasonable business in Spain and Italy. However, it has struggled to gain market share in the UK. We understand that Oxatis’s UK assets and resources have been folded into the alliance, and are fully part of the Actinic Online business.

Oxatis looks well-funded, raising €4 million from Crédit Agricole and its long-term backer A Plus Finance just over a year ago. The company has continued to show steady growth throughout recent turbulent economic conditions. Its management team is regarded as capable and key executives have been brought in to strengthen it when necessary.

2.3     Strategic Fit

We’re not aware of any exchange of stock or payment from one partner to another, and we see the alliance as a partnership of equals.

Actinic clearly brings UK experience, strength, market knowledge, and people resources to the alliance. Oxatis brings its platform, technology and software development resources. Actinic has quickly restructured its business around Actinic Online, and we’re pleased to see that it’s clearly very serious about the alliance.

We expect the alliance to be more than just the sum of its parts though. The combined experience & resources should allow the core Oxatis technology to be developed and improved more quickly and more extensively than would otherwise be the case.

The arrival of Actinic Online certainly represents the most significant business development for Actinic since we started working with their software six or seven years ago.

3.     Desktop vs SaaS Architecture

3.1     Desktop (i.e. “offline database”)

Actinic’s core product family (Catalog, Business, Business Plus, Enterprise) all share the same desktop-based architecture that has been a feature right from Actinic’s inception in the late 1990s. What that means is that a retailer installs Actinic’s software package on their PC, and this software is used both to manage the site and process its orders. The “offline” database of products, customers, and their orders is held locally on the PC, rather than on a web server. The Actinic software “publishes” the website’s HTML to the retailer’s web server, along with several scripts which handle functionality such as basket, checkout, search, and customer accounts.

The key advantages of this architecture are:-

  • The retailer feels confident that they fully “own” their website’s code and data locally.
  • Complete freedom to design and code the layout to meet client requirements.
  • Simple web hosting environment required.
  • Ease of modifying the site offline before publishing changes to the live website itself.
  • The Windows-based Actinic software application makes it easy for customers to manage their product catalogue and process orders.

However, there are some disadvantages:-

  • The site can usually only be managed from a single PC, rather than from any device on the web.
  • Customer accounts functionality is a little limited (although Actinic’s v11 is expected to address this).
  • Discount coupons have restrictions (although, again, Actinic’s v11 is likely to improve this).
  • Concurrent access by multiple administrators or order processing agents is impossible (apart from a limited extent using Business Plus or Enterprise).
  • Site content usually cannot be updated while a designer is working on new features.
  • Concurrent development by multiple developers is not possible.
  • The underlying database doesn’t allow layered/faceted navigation, or for a product to be assigned to more than one category (apart from by creating duplicate products).

3.2     SaaS (i.e. “online hosted”)

The Oxatis e-commerce solution is an example of Software as a Service (SaaS) using an online database on the web server itself rather than installed on a retailer’s local PC. The entire application is hosted by the service provider. Other examples are Venda, MagentoGo, Shopify, Shop Creator, BigCommerce, and others.

Note that SaaS is distinct from online, server-based e-commerce systems that are installed on your own web server or webspace. Here’s all the code and data in such cases is held on a web server, but the merchant retains responsibility for the installation, support, security and administration of the system. There are many examples, such as Magento, ZenCart, osCommerce, VirtueMart any many more. Many of these systems are supplied open source and at no cost for use of the core software itself.

SaaS is usually charged on a usage basis, rather than for an upfront software license. It’s worth taking a close look at total cost of ownership over the long term, though, when comparing SaaS versus desktop-based e-commerce.

The key advantages are:-

  • The retailer has no need to worry about installation, security, disaster planning, backup or in-depth system administration, as the SaaS provider handles this.
  • Investment by the SaaS provider in hardware, software, security, availability. There may be SLAs (Service Level Agreements) available.
  • There is tight integration with a payment processing service.
  • Access can usually be given to multiple concurrent administrators and developers from any web-connected device. (N.B. This isn’t currently the case for the Oxatis solution, but we expect it to be a development priority).
  • All retailers share the benefit of developments made across the common, shared platform.
  • Bug fixes can be applied quickly across the whole platform.
  • Lower start-up costs (rental vs one-off lump sum). But, consider total cost of ownership over the long term.
  • The underlying database is usually very powerful, allowing sophisticated configuration of the product catalogue, assignment of multiple categories, complex product definitions, powerful search and navigation functionality, true real-time stock management, full-featured customer accounts.

Disadvantages:-

  • Designers usually have limited access to the site’s code or database (because SaaS is only viable if the provider strictly maintains a common core). So it is often not easy to create highly individual, creative sites from a blank canvas.
  • The same reason means that developers have less scope to modify, extend and customise the software’s functionality. One size must fit all.
  • Some SaaS providers offer an API (Application Programming Interface), but the scope to integrate a retailer’s e-commerce system with third-party systems (e.g. accounting systems, warehouse systems, wholesalers’ stock feeds) is relatively limited.
  • The retailer must have total trust in their SaaS provider, and must be confident in their security, processes and quality management. If the SaaS provider’s business fails, there will usually be little warning of it, and few options to migrate to an alternative.
  • Costs can become quite high once usage and order volumes grow. Consider TCO.

4.     Notable features of Actinic Online

4.1     Design

The bundled templates for Actinic Online are quite ordinary. They are generally tidy but their designs look old, and are not very inspiring for retailers or their customers.

There is a visual design tool called “SmartSkins” which allows easy configuration for users without needing any coding skills. It isn’t intended to allow complete bespoke layouts to be created.

Professional designers have limited access to Actinic Online’s underlying code, which restricts what can be achieved to modifying Actinic Online’s client-side code (i.e. CSS and HTML) in certain defined areas of the overall template, and the replacement of images.

Designers can, however, make rather complicated use of VBScript within Actinic Online to handle certain form functionality. We haven’t formed an opinion yet on how useful this is.

There is a fair bit of compulsory use of tables, deprecated HTML, and inline CSS styling within Actinic Online’s templates. This might have a negative effect on SEO and, as web standards evolve, the layouts could display poorly in modern browser versions and on mobile devices so enhancements in this area would be welcome.

It’s still early days but we’re confident we can create very good designs for Actinic Online. However, we’ll have to find a new way to create layouts with the same level of design work that we currently carry out for Actinic’s desktop e-commerce products.

4.2     Site Management

In certain areas this is one of Actinic Online’s strengths. Multi-language, multi-currency sites are easily implemented.

However, product image handling and menu management are currently quite weak, and we hope that these will be examples of areas that the alliance will improve.

The administration interface is quite straightforward if you are already familiar with Magento, osCommerce, etc. or CMS software such as Joomla or WordPress. Some of the labelling and the terminology is a little counter-intuitive, and perhaps this is a consequence of the French-to-English translation of the software. It’s not a big problem though, and we expect this will be improved over time.

4.3     Catalogue and Product Management

This is largely a positive area for Actinic Online too. Up-selling and cross-selling is powerful and easily implemented.

Products can be assigned to more than one category or “brand” and this is an important feature. Configuring product options and choices is similarly impressive.

Those retailers who are used to dynamic menus integrated well with their product catalogues may be disappointed with how Actinic Online handles this. The system administrator must “manually” create and assign a menu for each category in their product catalogue. For a large store with a high rate of change, this could be frustrating.

Electronic (virtual) products are handled well.

We haven’t had a chance to explore it fully, but product pricing seems flexible so far. We haven’t tested real-world discounting rules and price variations yet.

4.4     Marketing

Our initial tests suggest that it’s possible to control the SEO of Actinic Online pages quite well.

The service includes an email newsletter management system, which we welcome heartily – we’ve long believed that Actinic’s desktop products would have been boosted by an integration of customer information, order information, newsletter management, and CRM tools. We look forward to testing whether the integrated newsletter offers our clients an alternative to third-party services such as MailChimp.

Discount coupons are powerful and flexible.

Oxatis recently introduced their My Social Store App for FaceBook to their platform, which offers retailers another route to market alongside Google Product Search, Kelkoo and Twenga.

There are encouraging facilities for managing affiliates and banner ads, and we look forward to examining these more closely.

4.5     Order Management

Everything is as you would expect here, but it’s worth highlighting for retailers using Actinic desktop software retailers that stock control is real-time and dynamic.

We haven’t had an opportunity to fully assess the service’s shipping rules. This is an area in which Actinic’s desktop software has always been very strong. It looks encouraging that Actinic Online’s shipping rules can broadly replicate those of the desktop software (e.g. shipping by weight, volume, value, quantity, or destination) and apply tax handling rules accordingly.

Actinic introduced a powerful “MOTO” feature with its v9 desktop software a couple of years ago, allowing retailers to directly enter and manage mail orders or telephone orders into Actinic’s software, alongside orders placed directly on the website itself. This has been a popular feature with retailers, and Actinic Online doesn’t have it. We imagine this will be a priority feature to add to the new service.

4.6     Payment Services

Actinic Online offers several integrated payment service providers (the most popular being PayPal). It also offers payment gateway options to retailers wishing to use their own Internet Merchant Accounts. Actinic’s own payment service doesn’t yet appear among these options, but we’re sure Actinic will be working on this as a priority.

4.7     Customer Accounts

We’re pleased to see full-featured online customer accounts with order history, custom pricing and self-management.

4.8     MarketPlace Manager

This is perhaps one of the most interesting and powerful features of Actinic Online. It allows retailers to manage their products and process orders from eBay, Amazon and their own website. There are some clear advantages in managing the sales channels together:-

  • Listing products on eBay and Amazon direct from the Actinic Online control panel.
  • Stock synchronisation (expected soon).
  • Centralised order tracking.
  • Order management within the Actinic Online control panel.

As eBay has gradually shifted from an auction site to become a vast shop window, and as Amazon increasingly acts as a channel for other retailers, this feature becomes very attractive. We have several clients who would gladly seize the opportunity.

5.     Pricing

As we mentioned above, the pricing structure for SaaS is different to desktop software. Actinic Online was priced at launch with two plans: £19/month and £35/month. The more expensive plan allows more products, page views and customers, plus certain additional features.

It’s certainly competitive with other SaaS e-commerce services such as Shop Creator and Magento Go, but owners of busy online shops will need to keep an eye on site usage. Excess payments are applicable for usage beyond the thresholds.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the pricing and thresholds tuned as the new service beds in.

When comparing total cost of ownership, retailers should bear in mind that they don’t need to pay extra for hosting or software licenses as these are part of the SaaS concept. There is no commitment to a long term contract.

6.     Support

We’re pleased to see online and telephone support bundled with the monthly fee. Access to knowledgeable UK support has always been one of Actinic’s strengths, and we’re also pleased to know that Actinic’s own staff are rapidly gaining technical skills of their own to complement the Oxatis resources.

However, e-commerce is by its very nature a 24×7 environment, and we’re hoping that support hours will be extended from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Monday to Friday, which really doesn’t match modern customer requirements.

7.     Who is Actinic Online for?

Actinic’s initial communications announcing the alliance and the new service have positioned Actinic Online as a replacement for Actinic Express and as an entry-level service. Actinic has certainly stressed the continued development and evolution of the desktop products alongside Actinic Online. There is a very large installed base of online shops running on Actinic’s desktop software, and you can be certain that Actinic will not neglect this key area of their business.

Certainly the pricing model for Actinic Online will appeal to businesses operating small online shops initially, compared to the £400 to £900+VAT up-front cost of buying an Actinic desktop software license plus the annual Cover support charge.

Green Jersey’s own typical clients wouldn’t be too influenced by that, as our own project costs are usually much more significant than software license costs alone. They are more likely to choose the platform which simply offers the best features and functionality for their needs.

And this is where Actinic may need to balance its offerings carefully, because Actinic Online includes several important features that its desktop customers would dearly like for themselves (e.g. stock management, online customer accounts, web access, full-featured coupons, etc.). The release of v11 of the desktop software this autumn is likely to reduce several of these gaps.

However, for the time being there is a question mark over the potential design scope of Actinic Online, and the extent of development customisation. Actinic’s desktop software is strong in these areas.

Retailers operating eBay and Amazon stores as well as their own websites will be attracted to the SaaS offering, as will those needing internationalised sites with multi-currency and multi-language capability.

We expect to see an improved Actinic Online service later this year, incorporating requirements from Actinic’s people and exploiting their knowledge of the e-commerce market.

For the future, we would expect a migration path and tools to become available for those desktop customers wishing to move across to Actinic Online. Clearly the new service gives Actinic a new set of strategic options for its products and their architecture. It looks very competitive within the market for SME e-commerce solutions, and we welcome it wholeheartedly.