Seamless e-commerce giving way to XML/EDI hybrid

The first round of efforts by e-commerce standards bodies to harmonize XML-based technology with electronic data interchange (EDI) protocols is making the promised world of seamless business-to-business transactions look like a mirage.

Instead, users are likely to be presented with a hybrid approach in which data translation, document mapping and enterprise application integration tools are facts of life.

For example, a joint XML/EDI working group that’s developing a common set of core technology components is looking to use XML document wrappers from Open Applications Group Inc. in Marietta, Ga., and modified EDI documents as the standard data formats for online transactions. The group finished its member comment process last Friday and is preparing to release its first working document for public review.

Balancing Everyone’s Needs

Meanwhile, XML-centric document libraries like the Universal Business Language, backed by technology vendors SAP AG, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Commerce One Inc., continue to fight for acceptance. But for some users, the lack of a pure XML-based data format for e-commerce transactions isn’t a problem.

Klaus Haidacher, procurement operations director at Siemens Procurement and Logistics Services LLC, an Iselin, N.J.-based subsidiary of Siemens AG, said compromise e-commerce approaches will work best for many companies.

“You cannot expect suppliers to change all their formats,” Haidacher said. “They don’t make changes like that.”

Matt Cordner, director of strategic planning for operations at Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. in Fort Worth, Tex., said standard product codes set by the United Nations will likely have more of an impact on his company’s business-to-business activities than XML document standards.

“We want to build to standards where we can, but we tend to wait for them to mature before we make an investment,” he said. “So far, we don’t see anything out there.”

Indeed, vendors have flooded the market with different data formats for XML documents. One effort to help companies deal with the glut was announced last week by a group of users and vendors that’s trying to blend XML implementation protocols used in different vertical industries.

Ken Vollmer, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said the weak economy is also a factor in dampening enthusiasm for wholesale switches to XML-based IT initiatives.

But Robert Glushko, an engineering fellow at Pleasanton, Calif.-based Commerce One, claimed that plug-and-play e-commerce will get bogged down if it relies too much on the plumbing of earlier transaction models, such as EDI.

“It’s like going to the moon with a ladder,” Glushko said. “It’s really good for the first few feet because you don’t have to change anything, but you never really get past the roof.”

Users, Vendors Agree on XML Implementation Model

With so many versions of XML being promoted by different groups, it’s no surprise that a standardized method of implementing the would-be technical standard was proposed last week.

The Business Internet Consortium (BIC), a Portland, Ore.-based group of users and vendors, published a conceptual model that targets XML’s use in business-to-business applications. The model defines specific protocols and implementation methods that represent a convergence of XML approaches taken by BIC members in different industries.

Group members include Ford Motor Co., The Gillette Co. and Reuters Group PLC, plus vendors Compaq Computer Corp., IBM, Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. Terry Spires, a marketing manager at Intel and chairman of the BIC, said more than 250 versions of XML are available, each with subtle differences in the way messages are handled within an application.

For example, Reuters is “intimately involved” with NewsML, a version of XML used to deliver financial and other news online, according to Scott Jeffreys, senior vice-president of technology alliances at the London-based news and information services company.

Jeffreys, who is chairman of the BIC’s customer advisory board, said the guidelines announced last week are meant to solve specific Internet-related problems that users face in day-to-day business operations, instead of defining a standard in an abstract sense.

The BIC’s model will be useful to Reuters because the company “not only consumes XML feeds from other companies, but we produce them,” he said. “We get to see both sides of the equation.”