In three years, Tobias Lutke has grown his Ottawa, Canada startup company, Shopify, into an online marketplace of more than 2,000 stores. MSN Shopping, which has more than 8,000 stores, probably isn’t losing any sleep over Shopify, yet. But the way things are going for Lutke, who is one of only five people that staff the company, it may not be long.

The secret of Shopify’s success: the Web application framework, Ruby on Rails, and the programming language, Ajax. Both are open source, free, and insanely easy to use to develop websites, he says.

“When we incorporated three years ago, our business was actually going to be a retail store. But in looking around for software to build an additional ecommerce platform, we found Ruby on Rails," Lutke says. "With Ruby on Rails, we were selling online within two months with a fully functional ecommerce site that included an online catalog and checkout. It was so easy and fun to work with we completely abandoned the idea of a retail store by the next year.”

What makes Ruby on Rails so advantageous compared to other frameworks is that it provides a boilerplate of foundational code, so developers don’t have to build from the ground up.

“It eliminates all that initial busy work. Programmers can focus on the coding that makes their application unique,” says David Heinemeier Hansson, the Chicago-based developer who created Ruby on Rails.

With more than 10,000 members in his online community of Ruby on Rails enthusiasts, Hansson says most companies adopting his Web framework are smaller businesses and here’s why:

  • It’s fast. “The average Ruby on Rails project takes about three to six months versus the one to two years it would take using Java, for example,” says Hansson.
  • It’s cheap. Being open source, the code is free. Additionally, the environment it operates within is modestly priced, as well. That’s because it works with all the other popular open source solutions like the Linux operating system and Apache servers. Costs are minimal because there are no licensing fees.
  • Staffing the development team is minimal. “You don’t need a staff of 10 to 15 people, including a dedicated project manager, to get an application out the door. Typically, it takes one designer, one programmer and maybe a third person who does a little of both.” says Hansson.

Enter Ajax

While Ruby on Rails provides the framework, Ajax is the programming language that provides all the bells and whistles on top. As mentioned, it is an open source code, as well, and is free and easy to use.

Together, they are a Web developer’s dream team. “Ruby on Rails was one of the first Web applications to take Ajax seriously. We now treat it like an essential piece to our framework,” says Hansson.

While developers love the ease of use working with Ajax, business owners love the results: a far more elegant and easy-to-use site especially when it comes to ecommerce.

“Typical Ajax-like behavior allows elements of a site, like adding comments to a blog or adding a product to a shopping cart, to update without requiring the entire page to reload. Visual effects that highlight those changes, called the yellow fade technique, replace that jarring change to an updated page,” says Hansson.

Aside from the aesthetics of Ajax, the benefits to selling online are enormous:

  • Completing the sale. Every time a page has to reload during an online transaction there’s a risk the sale will be derailed by either the browser crashing or reloading so slowly that the customer clicks away in disgust. With Ajax, updating without reloading makes the transaction faster, seamless and less prone to technical glitches.
  • Viewing products. On an Ajax site, the user clicks on a picture and it blows up to a larger size, perhaps with added information, without creating a new page. The ability to interact with that single element, without loading a new page allows for speedier access. Speedier access makes it easier and more desirable to look at more products. The more products viewed means more opportunities of making a sale.
  • Easy customization. “The most visible benefit of Ajax to Shopify is for our customers who use our administrative interface to design their store fronts to sell on Shopify. It allows them to incorporate Ajax features within their designs to also avoid page reloads and speed up their transactions, as well,” says Lutke.
  • Steering eyeballs. The so-called "fade to yellow" technique is a great way to visually lead customers to additional products, user-friendly feedback surveys or through the transaction, itself. This is especially beneficial with a not so tech-savvy customer base that has a tendency to get confused or lost somewhere between adding a product to their basket and hitting the "submit order" button.