Firefox + Greasemonkey Turbocharge E-Commerce Site--From The Client Side

Thursday Dec 11th 2008 by Tina Gasperson
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Perl hacker Ian Malpass uses Perl, Firefox and Greasemonkey to make Etsy.com, the popular online crafts market, more usable and seller-friendly---without ever touching the servers. Tina Gasperson reports on how he did it, and how anyone can do it.

Etsy.com is a large, successful ecommerce operation for sellers of handmade and vintage goods. Sellers set up a shop on Etsy's servers without having to know any Web design or programming, and Etsy charges a small fee to list and sell items. Etsy's discussion forums are always buzzing with conversation about features that buyers and sellers want, but with a limited staff and a long list of priorities, the wait for new features can seem long. That's where Etsy husband and Perl hacker Ian Malpass comes in, with a little help from Firefox and Greasemonkey.

Malpass set up a site called EtsyHacks.com that includes an RSS feed of all his scripts. He's published about fifteen of them so far, most of which add helpful links and information to parts of the seller's administrative area and to the discussion forums.

"There were things that were difficult to do on Etsy that I felt should be easy," Malpass says. "I'd heard of Greasemonkey, but never actually used it or written anything for it, and so these seemed like good 'learn by doing' projects." Malpass originally wrote the scripts for his wife, an Etsian who makes barrettes and other hair accessories.

Malpass started coding in Perl in 1996, at Jesus College in Oxford. "[It] had a very well equipped computer lab about 30 seconds from my room," he says. "I spent more time in there than I did studying." He started with simple HTML tags, but "pretty quickly reached the point where I wanted to try this CGI thing, and Perl appeared to be the language of choice, so that's what I learned, along with bits and pieces of JavaScript."

Malpass found that having Perl in his toolkit was also useful for "general text crunching," making his work "faster and smarter," he says. He got a job with the BBC, working as part of the quality control and troubleshooting team, using more Perl than every to automate what he calls the "drudgery" of the job.

Malpass' first exposure to open source software was Apache. "I didn't realize it at the time. It was just there on the server, sending out my Web pages. Same, really, for Perl. It was just there, ready for me to use. I think the first software I used that actually register [with me] as open source was The Gimp. The Mac in the computer lab was being used, and I needed to do some work with Photoshop, so the lab manager pointed me at the [computer with] The Gimp instead.

"Open source really crept up on me over time. As a Windows user I had always sought out shareware to keep costs down. FOSS just got lumped in with freeware, and in that regard, I liked it a lot. Perl's CPAN was probably the first time I 'got' open source, because it was a source I could understand, use, alter, and improve. I'm still more of a user than a contributor. I've written two modules for CPAN, but not much else."

Malpass says it was Firefox that really helped him begin to see the potential of the open source development approach, especially for client-side applications. "All of a sudden here was a software product that was really, really good. Looked good and worked better than its commercial rivals, with a community that could respond to problems quickly and openly. That set me off looking for other high-quality applications, and I'm happy to say I found plenty."

Malpass says the reaction from Etsy sellers to his scripts has been good. "The response has been really very positive. I think some people have been surprised that I've just gone out and made these available to the community, rather than trying to sell them. I think of it as a 'pay it forward' sort of deal. I make a good living using tools freely given by others, so I should give others good tools too. People have been sufficiently impressed by the hacks that they've donated money to help cover my costs, which has been a welcome surprise, but I'm not going to get rich doing this.

"It's been nice that I am able to play some small part in the FOSS movement by encouraging people to switch to an open source browser - there have been a number of people who've said, 'OK, these sound good, I'm going to try Firefox now.' There are a fair few technically minded sellers on Etsy, but I don't get the impression that there are lots of real techies. Where they show up is in third-party tools that like mine, try to make life a bit easier for Etsy users. Right now Etsy's platform is maturing, and I know they have a plan to develop and release an API, and I think that will open up some interesting possibilities, and really tap in to that 'maker' spirit."

Malpass recommends that people new to open source just jump right in - but not too deeply. "The various Linux distros that come on Live CDs are a great way to get your feet wet without really committing. Alternatively, grab an old box off Freecycle and have an 'I can break this' sandbox. I think Windows users can really benefit from the mature FOSS applications that are appearing now, especially OpenOffice.org, which is a beautiful replacement for commonly bundled software like Microsoft Works, but most don't know they exist, so it is important to evangelize."

This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.

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