Evolving e-standards

It’s easier to swim through a vat of spaghetti than to keep track of the many standards efforts for business-to-business e-commerce. Funny thing about standards, unless everyone agrees on one, you don’t have a standard — you have Unix all over again.

Nevertheless, a plateful of work is being done on e-commerce standards, much of it overlapping or conflicting, and chiefly in two areas: XML and codifying business practices.

Ask any vendor about its involvement in business-to-business e-commerce standards and you’ll get an ear full of XML. Yet unlike other standards, only XML’s syntax has been standardized.

While it’s great that Web developers can now tag anything, unless some agreement is made as to what the tags mean and how to process them, you might as well be speaking different languages.

Consequently, a cornucopia of work is being done to standardize tags and documents. The work manifests itself in two forms: Document Type Definitions (DTD) and schemas. DTDs, part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s XML 1.0, basically declare what kind of document is being exchanged. Schemas, developed after Version 1.0, are more comprehensive. They include document structure, more rules and other attributes.

“A lot of the commerce standards are about DTDs. That’s OK, but they don’t scale well for e-commerce, and they tend to be vendor-specific,” says Dave Burdett, technology group leader for Commerce One, a business-to-business e-commerce vendor in Walnut Creek, Calif. “A schema is much less processing-intensive. It needs less validation than a DTD because there’s less rule-checking and handling. So it requires less resources from the infrastructure.”

Still, it should be noted that the much-ballyhooed cXML, produced by Commerce One’s arch-rival Ariba, is based on DTDs. “When you’re talking about operating resources (not raw materials), as long as you defined a relatively complete order, the DTD order form is fine. But it’s not intended for items like raw materials orders that require special scheduling,” counters David Rome, vice-president of marketing for Ariba.

Too Many XML Recipes

Perhaps a bigger issue is the sheer number of cooks in the XML kitchen. Two categories of groups are busily defining standards: vertical industry consortia and e-business platform vendors.

As for the former, some 35 industry-specific XML DTD/schema frameworks are being created in at least a dozen industries, according to OASIS, a vendor-independent repository of XML initiatives. The frameworks include the financial securities industry’s Financial Products Markup Language (FpML); the travel industry’s Open Travel Alliance; the architecture, engineering and construction industry’s aecXML, and others.

Obviously, with so many burners fired up, there’s a lot of repetition. The financial industry is a prime example. There’s FpML, plus XML work by the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat; the Interactive Financial Exchange; the Financial Services Technology Consortium; the Bank Internet Payment System; and Checkfree, Intuit and Microsoft with their Open Financial Exchange.

No single reference implementation exists for XML. Each group is creating its DTDs and schemas from scratch-leaving a whole lot of variations to support. This is particularly harsh for horizontal businesses, such as wholesalers or retailers, which work with many vertical markets. They’re forced to support multiple so-called XML standards.

“We preach to customers to use as many emerging XML standards as practical,” asserts Shannon Denton, senior vice-president for Xcelerate, a Web site developer in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., specializing in business-to-business e-commerce. “The real challenge is that there are competing consortiums out there-there’s no centralized board.”

Now add a cup of e-commerce vendors specializing in business-to-business trading. They try to attract customers with their own XML frameworks. Such frameworks concentrate on common business documents such as purchase orders and return authorizations; a company could then customize them. Frameworks in this genre include Ariba’s xCML, Commerce One’s Common Business Library and SAP’s mySAP.

Place this mixture into a scorching hot fire-otherwise known as Microsoft’s BizTalk, an XML schema repository. Groups register their schemas with BizTalk, and it translates one to another. This type of translation is a page right out of electronic data interchange. True to form, Microsoft has gotten ahead of the standards process, using an extended schema and its own exchange methods.

Yet because of Microsoft’s clout, everyone who’s anyone is working with BizTalk. This, in turn, has caused fear among competitors that Microsoft is covertly trying to control XML. There is some reason to worry-BizTalk will be supported in Microsoft products such as Site Server Commerce Edition and Office 2000, and is available as the Microsoft BizTalk Server, now in alpha.

“A lot of people will see power to drive the standard in Microsoft. But by definition, a standard is not controlled by a single company,” said Jim Hoyt, vice-president of technology for Sterling Commerce, a longtime EDI vendor that offers a competitor to BizTalk, Gentran:Server.

With all this activity, it would seem that XML is the only e-business standard. Not true. About 18 months ago, Open Buying on the Internet (OBI) was released and widely hailed as the business-to-business standard to watch. But it was hardly the rallying dinner bell that its creators hoped it would be. Loosely aimed at the office supplies market, OBI has achieved a modicum of support from vendors such as Ariba and SAP. However, the specification’s complexity, coupled with the rise of XML, has taken the steam out of it, e-commerce vendors say.

“OBI has not turned out the way people anticipated. It’s about sell side. Pieces of OBI, like the transfer of purchase orders in OBI format, are supported,” says Mike Micucci, director of product marketing for Commerce One.

The upshot is that XML doesn’t make business-to-business e-commerce easy, just easier. Integration between e-business applications remains a custom-coding affair, says Anne Marie Kean, vice-president of business-to-business e-commerce for Staples in Framingham, Mass. Staples uses XML and OBI to conduct e-commerce with its business customers. Staples integrates its catalogues with a customer’s procurement systems or proprietary office-supply applications.

While her customers frequently request that such integration use XML, Kean says that with all the variations, it’s not the quick process her customers imagine it to be.

“I don’t see a pattern, other than variations of XML,” she says. “Each procurement system has its own version, and that’s what we have to do to support our customers.”

Other Standards on the Menu

Codifying good e-commerce business practices is another area of standards work. At least two organizations have taken on this task: the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) in Foster City, Calif., and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

The GII’s thrust is its Standard for Internet Commerce. The standard is drafted and voted upon by more than 200 analysts, consumer advocates, e-commerce enterprises, educators, journalists and vendors.

GII’s hopes to increase trust in e-commerce by: 1) letting the industry dictate its own conduct; and 2) providing guidelines that give shoppers a consistent experience. It covers business practices, like the minimal acceptable response time for a customer-service query, the information an e-business should post about itself and what data to include when verifying an order via e-mail. The second and final draft was released in mid-December.

Similarly, the OECD covers some of the same ground as the GII, but is also international and involves broader issues. The OECD is well-known for its roles in various international trade initiatives. It has recently developed Guidelines for Consumer Protection in the Context of Electronic Commerce, an OECD Council Recommendation.

“Council Recommendations are nonbinding, but since they are, in effect, jointly drafted by the governments of the OECD Member countries, there is a certain moral obligation to meet them,” says John Dryden, head of the Information Computer and Communications Policy Division Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry at the OECD.

Although drafted with consumer confidence and protection in mind, the guidelines have obvious implications for business-to-business e-commerce, as well. They cover areas such as fair business and marketing practices, on-line business and information disclosures, the handling of consumer complaints and dispute resolution.

The OECD has also begun to tread lightly in the areas of international taxation, legal jurisdiction and tariffs. While the guidelines don’t make specific recommendations for the latter two, taxes are a different dish.

“The tariff issue is a bit different from that of taxes-although a tariff-free zone in cyberspace for electronic transmissions makes sense, the same is not true for taxes-there is no reason for cyberspace to be a tax haven,” Dryden said. Currently, member countries have agreed to let trade develop electronically without tariffs.

But saying that countries should be able to collect taxes requires solving the obvious technical problems of performing the task. So the OECD has created a taxation “framework conditions” report offering guidelines on how to apply tax rules to electronic transactions. This document also suggests areas for future work concerning “consumption taxes, direct taxes and tax administration,” Dryden said.

Overall, the enterprise that dines at the e-business table must track an awful lot of undercooked standards work. Network executives should begin by scouting out all relevant XML work being done in their companies’ industries, via their suppliers and customers as well as organizations such as OASIS. Executives should further study the construct of that work-DTD or schema-to evaluate the possible effect on the network.

Likewise, every enterprise should be taking note of evolving best business practices. This is the bar to which they will be expected to compete. And those with international interests should stay abreast of technology and practices involving taxes. Having piled the plate high with such information, the last step…mangia!