Is there anybody out there?

Imagine life with no phone book. Shopping would be limited to stores you already knew about or information gathered from word of mouth. In one’s personal life this might work, but in business-to-business e-commerce it could be the final nail in a corporate coffin.

A lot of the Internet’s initial buzz was around the potential it could offer businesses. Not only could the supply chain be streamlined, it could also be enlarged. New business partners would be found, agreements signed and money made.

“It isn’t sufficient to do business with the people you already know about,” said Robert Sutor, director of e-business standards strategy for IBM Corp. in Somers, N.Y.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem. People knew they needed to expand their corporate horizon but they didn’t know where to find anybody. Much work has been done in recent years to solve this dilemma, but the results have been sporadic at best.

So some of the biggest players in the technology and business world decided to do something about it. At the end of last year, beta testing was started on the Universal Description, Discovery and Integration Project, designed to act as a business super-phone book, replete with yellow, white and green pages.

The list of companies that have joined the UDDI initiative includes such heavy hitters as Boeing, Ford Motor Co., Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. The best definition of the UDDI project comes, not surprisingly, from an executive white paper at The intention is to create a global, platform independent, open framework to enable businesses to discover each other, define how they interact over the Internet and share information, according to the paper.

Many of the companies involved are admittedly not exactly close friends but the goal, according to David Daniels, director of e-solutions and technology with Microsoft Canada in Toronto, is to facilitate the growth of B2B world-wide.

“It shouldn’t be incumbent on Microsoft, IBM and Ariba customers to have to manage a heterogeneous environment or worry about standards, it is up to the technology companies to work together to make it easier for businesses and their customers to work together,” he said.

That is the essential goal: give companies a starting place to look for and contact potential e-commerce partners. The UDDI registry allows businesses to store information about themselves so that other people can connect with them.

The white pages provide basic contact information about a company – who does what and how to get in touch with them. The yellow pages are much like its telephone book counterpart. Information is categorized based on industry, so if you want to search for companies that produce plastic bottles you would look there.

The green pages provide information about service types and specific technical details about connecting business to business. “[Here you would find] how you would actually connect to a business electronically, for example, and the types of protocols used,” Sutor explained. “It is not sufficient to find someone, you have to know whether you can communicate with them.”

The project is still in beta testing and it will be some time before the directory is turned over to a standards organization.

“I think we are talking months rather than years,” said Simon Nicholson, manager of the XML industry initiative group with Sun in Menlo Park, Calif.

“From our perspective this is a key piece of technology required for the Internet and for Web services and beyond.”

who will control it?

Not surprisingly, any time avowed competitors are jointly involved in a project, control is often an issue. Though the companies spoken to put on a smiling face and talked about working together for a solution that benefits all, analysts don’t necessarily see them as a bunch of knights in shining armour.

“There is no doubt about it, there are political aims behind this…they have a lot of stake in the success of it,” said Tyler McDaniel, senior analyst with the Hurwitz Group in Framingham, Mass.

“Because of the high visibility of it…there will continue to be a push to keep it open. In other words, not necessarily becoming all a Microsoft world,” McDaniel said.

“You wouldn’t want UDDI to become another Windows, that would be detrimental, I think, to the project as a whole.”

But McDaniel said the project is important, has good support behind it, and the momentum and talent to move it forward. He said there are smaller, more localized efforts, but nothing of the scope and scale of UDDI.

As it stands now, registration with UDDI occurs on one of three interconnected servers operated by Microsoft, IBM and Ariba.

For IBM the initial cost will be well worth it. “We look at the cost as an investment that is part of a bigger scheme that we call Web services,” Sutor said.

And for Microsoft?

“You might ask what is Microsoft’s interest in this?” Daniels said. “We are focusing on some of the open standards such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and XML and this is a core piece to our .Net strategy,” he concluded.

The ultimate goal for UDDI is for all B2B companies in the world to register, participants said.

For companies contemplating the world of B2B, the potential stakes are high. According to the Gartner Group, the world-wide B2B e-commerce market is forecast to grow from US$403 billion in 2000 to US$7.29 trillion in 2004, and good customer relationship management will be a key driver of this growth. CRM services are one offering in the UDDI registry book.