October 18, 2006

Updated eBay tools leave Linux users in the cold

Author: Nathan Willis

Online auction giant eBay is continually upgrading and supplementing its services, and that means frequent users periodically discover something new when they log in -- integrated PayPal, new messaging tools, and so on. I am one of those frequent users, and I recently discovered that the latest update to one of the core auction tools locks out Linux users.

The tool is the sellers' auction setup wizard officially named Sell Your Item. eBay rolled out Sell Your Item 3.0 at the end of the summer, adding some more AJAX-ified flair and polish. It was October before I dusted off a relic in need of selling and tried the new form for myself, and found that it didn't work in Linux.

Some interface elements were grayed-out and unusable, some text changes I made vanished right in front of my eyes, and entire form reset itself to its empty defaults, trashing everything I had done. The top of the page admonished, "For more selling options and features use a newer browser and JavaScript enabled." I was using Firefox 1.5 and yes, sir, JavaScript sure was enabled.

This misfortune struck right at the end of half an hour's work, and I was in no mood to start over immediately. But even if I managed to dodge the data loss problem by writing my item description offline, the missing functionality would keep me from setting up my auction in the way I needed it to run. Some of those settings are very important -- scheduling a specific start time, for example, is critical to getting the best price you can for your item. So rather than starting over, I decided to investigate.

Knowing that sometimes the combination of operating system and browser is the source of the problem, I experimented with a variety of combinations. I used Firefox, Konqueror, Epiphany, and Opera on Linux, and I tried Firefox on Mac OS X and Windows.

Linux is the only element that triggers faulty behavior from the Sell Your Item form. None of the Linux browsers I tried worked correctly, and all of the browsers I tried on the other operating systems worked fine.

More importantly, whatever the cause of the trouble, it is definitely on eBay's end. I found that if I used Firefox's User Agent Switcher extension and set the User Agent string to Internet Explorer 6 on Windows XP, suddenly the form behaved properly.

Now that's just not nice. There is no technical reason why the new Sell Your Item shouldn't work on Linux, and it is restricting users on the basis of their operating system, not their browser.

A spokesperson for eBay sent the following response when I asked about the problems I was experiencing:

We are aware that there is some limited functionality for members using linux-based browsers and the new SYI 3.0. We are working on a fix for this now. In the meantime, Linux users can opt to use the SYI 2.0.

Indeed, you can manually start the auction setup processing under the old Sell Your Item once you know how. But you are only given that choice at the very first page of Sell Your Item. If you're using the "sell yours today" or "sell an item like this" links embedded in other auction listings, you start off midway into the process, so you have to back up to the beginning in order to switch. Frankly, it is easier to just change your User Agent string from the pull-down menu.

I don't know why eBay built a Sell Your Item that chooses to discriminate against Linux users on the basis of the operating system; I thought we were past all of that years ago. I asked eBay when we could expect the fix they promised, but did not receive a reply by press time. In the meantime, there is a "sticky" thread on the community forums about the Sell Your Item reserved for update notices. While we wait, it is somewhat comforting to read through the Feedback on Sell Your Item 3.0 thread and see that there are other Linux users experiencing the same frustrations.

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