February 13-19, 2001
easier with new standard
Local meeting on electronic business language aims for consistency
More than 250 people representing 35 companies and 15 governments are meeting in Vancouver this week to advance a project that aims to make electronic commerce cheaper and increase the number of participants using the Web for business-to-business transactions worldwide.
The two-year-old initiative -- called electronic business extensible markup language or ebXML for short (www.ebxmlvancouver.org) -- hopes to create a set of international standards for XML to ease the exchange of electronic data and trade between companies.
"It's analogous to creating a single world currency. If we all decide that we're going to use the American dollar, that's one less pain we need to deal with. This initiative allows us to be unified in how we exchange information. It's sorta like the global currency for data," said David Pool, managing director and founder of XML Fund, a Seattle-based venture capital firm that bankrolls XML companies or projects.
Duane Nickull, chief technical officer and cofounder of Kitsilano-based XML Global Technologies Inc., which is hosting the conference, said the initiative is important because it will allow businesses to lower operating costs by automating buying and selling functions through the Web.
"If you could have an application or methodology where you could fill out a purchase order on the Web, send it to a seller, get confirmation back and also know that you've met all the requirements for that business, you're talking a significant reduction in human labour and you're creating a single interface for other companies to interact with you," he said.
The basis for the initiative, XML itself, is a computer language akin to the more commonly known HTML (or hypertext markup language) in that both are used to encode information on the Internet. But while HTML tells browsers how to display information on a Web page, XML describes the information, much the same way a bar code on packaged goods describes the price of the item, who manufactured it and what it is.
Proponents say this makes searching for information on the Internet easier because, unlike HTML, XML allows authors to create a context for keywords so that more relevant "hits" come up. Also, companies and individuals can share information online more easily because both sender and re
ceiver can manipulate the data.
David Hilal, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. Inc. in Arlington, Virginia, called XML the holy grail of e-commerce.
"I think if you're a software vendor and you don't have your hooks in XML or some XML adapter, you're greatly limiting your product," he said.
Since XML was completed in 1998 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), it has started to become fragmented as more industry groups and software venders create slightly different versions by adding their own definitions for data (or tags) to suit their sector. The steel industry, the insurance industry, the finance industry and the health care industry are just a few that have their own XML-based markup language to enable industry buyers and sellers to exchange product and order information online or transfer data.
"Having different derivations is good because it expands the market for XML, but at the same time you're creating competing derivations of XML," Hilal noted.
A similar system -- called electronic data interchange, or EDI -- has been in use for some time by larger firms over private networks, but is expensive and more complicated to implement and maintain.
Headed by the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), ebXML hopes to stop the fragmentation and make it affordable for small- and medium-sized firms to do business online.
Nickull, who is also a member of the ebXML steering committee and co-editor working on its technical architecture, said some technical issues need to be resolved and agreement on the general terms for the infrastructure must still be reached to ensure interoperability.
If all goes well, the group expects to launch ebXML by summer, at which point the specifications will be used to build e-business software and test it.
Some companies, including XML Global (XMLG:OTCBB; www.xmlglobal.com), have already begun designing software based on some specifications or general principles that have been agreed on to date.*
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