June 5, 2008

eBay sniping with JBidwatcher 2.0

Author: Nathan Willis

While eBay was once seen solely as the world's garage sale, it is evolving into a general commerce marketplace, and that makes auction monitoring applications all the more useful. JBidwatcher, one of the best open source eBay utilities, has just released a major update. Let's take a look.

JBidwatcher is the work of Morgan Schweers, who has overseen its development for close to eight years. It hasn't always been easy, though -- JBidwatcher 0.9 was released in 2003, but 1.0 didn't come until 2006. Since that time, only a few minor updates came down the pipe, usually to fix breakages when eBay changed its formatting or URI scheme.

The 1.0.x series continues to function correctly for most auctions today, but is showing its age. Newer eBay features and spin-off sites (such as the vehicle-only eBay Motors) are not supported, and the interface is inflexible, particularly for Linux users.

Schweers decided to refactor the code, add new features, refresh the look and feel, and store auction information in a database instead of flat files. He started releasing 2.0 betas to the public in April. The most recent is 2.0 beta 3, unleashed on May 1.

Getting started

As the name implies, JBidwatcher is a Java app, and is tested regularly on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. OS-appropriate installers are available for the proprietary OSes; Linux users need only to grab the .jar file and save it to any location on their system.

The new version of JBidwatcher requires Java 1.5 or newer. The instructions say you should use the Sun Java Runtime Environment, although I have used JBidwatcher 1.0.x with other JREs without major trouble on Linux. The Java 1.5 requirement limits the Mac version of JBidwatcher to 10.4 and later only.

If you have already been using JBidwatcher 1.0.x, you'll have a .jbidwatcher directory that contains cached data concerning all of the auctions you are watching (including thumbnail images), your login credential, and error logs. Back up a copy of your .jbidwatcher directory before you launch the new release. On a command line, type cp -R ~/.jbidwatcher ~/.jbidwatcher.backup.

Launch the app by typing java -jar JBidwatcher-2.0beta3.jar &. Here I stumbled across a system configuration problem -- although I knew I had Sun Java 1.6 installed, the java command would not launch JBidwatcher, because it was symlinked to a different JRE. To fix this on a Debian-like system such as Ubuntu, type sudo update-alternatives --config java and select the correct java binary from the menu choices.

Once up and running, the new release should recognize the info in your old .jbidwatcher directory and import the data and settings seamlessly. If you have no existing .jbidwatcher directory, the app will launch its configuration menu. Here you set your eBay username and password, default timing for auction sniping, and other preferences.

You can add auctions to the watch list by selecting Auction -> Add menu item and typing in the auction number. It is also simple to automatically import your entire watch list from eBay -> Get My eBay Items. You schedule a bid by right-clicking on the desired auction in the list and choosing Snipe. You purchase a Buy It Now item by choosing Buy from the same menu.

One of JBidwatcher's best features is the ability to schedule a conditional snipe for multiple auctions -- good for when there are multiple copies of the same item up for grabs, and you want to be sure to purchase only one. Select all of the items you wish to group by Ctrl-clicking them, then choose Auction -> Multiple Snipe. The app will attempt to snipe the auction that ends first (at the specified price), and will repeat the attempt for each later auction if and only if your snipe fails to win.

What's new

This revamp does not introduce much in the way of functionality that was absent in the 1.0.x series, but it does restore a few features that were broken due to behind-the-scenes changes at eBay.

For example, eBay's vehicle sales (including cars, boats, planes, and parts for all of the above) run through the www.motors.ebay.com domain in the US, instead of through www.ebay.com. The two sites are only partially integrated at eBay itself -- the same account works for both, but watch lists and saved searches can get confused if you wander back and forth between the domains. I was never able to get JBidwatcher 1.0.x to place a bid on an eBay Motors auction, but 2.0 does so without trouble.

Users in other locales will appreciate improved support for non-Latin characters, and Indian shoppers can at long last rejoice at support for the rupee currency.

On Linux in particular, the improvements in 2.0 make for a nicer overall experience, even if they do not add features. You can customize the interface, such as selecting which columns to show or hide in the main list of watched auctions. And you can rearrange the columns by clicking and dragging them into the order you prefer.

The overall look of the app is improved on my GNOME-based desktop; it picks up the correct GTK+ theme colors and uses native tabs, which helps it blend in better than it did in days past. A new set of icons is on display as well, although I cannot say I personally find them appealing -- they are 48x48 pixels, which is rather large, and have their own extra shiny look. I would greatly prefer to have the app pick up my default icon theme.

A few bugs remain in 2.0 beta 3, such as iffy support for Dutch auctions. Dutch auctions are listings of multiple independent items, and use peculiar rules that allow everyone to bid on subsets of the whole collection. They are a rarity, so few users are likely to call this drawback a deal-breaker.


Our round-up of various eBay-oriented Firefox extensions last year led off with the auction sniping tool Biet-O-Zilla. Unfortunately, since Biet-O-Zilla seems to have ceased development, the existing release becomes harder to run as Firefox is updated.

I had begun to fear the same fate was in store for JBidwatcher, with its slow trickle of updates over the past few years. I had even resigned myself to the disappointment that it would never correctly handle eBay Motors auctions. Thus it was a pleasant double surprise to see the 2.0 series of beta releases this spring -- a major update that fixed lingering problems and fit in nicely with the modern Linux desktop. If you are an eBay aficionado, check out the updated JBidwatcher. Just don't bid against me.


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