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EC vendors back new XML initiative

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About three dozen electroniccommerce vendors, from old-line electronic data interchange software firms to up-and-coming electronic catalog suppliers, are backing an effort to standardize Extensible Markup Language (XML) elements for online purchases.

Spearheaded by online catalog hotshot Ariba Technologies, the first draft of Commerce XML (cXML) is due next month. The new specification will define the shape of purchase orders, order acknowledgements and other core business documents. With rising customer demand for the new XML technology, even EDI old-timers such as Sterling Commerce are rushing to embrace cXML - sight unseen.

Why?

"We need this stuff now," says Dave Wilkinson, director of product architecture at Sterling Commerce.

Far newer than EDI, XML offers a format-neutral way to prepare documents using coding tags to define their syntax. XML's neutrality allows it to be easily converted to other formats, such as EDI, if needed. But until the business community agrees on how an XML purchase order or other document should be represented with XML coding tags, the markup language is of limited practical use between e-commerce trading partners.

Wilkinson says cXML promises to be the first step in creating the equivalent of EDI transaction sets.

"In XML, we call them Document Type Definitions [DTD]," he explains.

A DTD, which is based on XML tags, is simply a way of representing fields for a specific type of document, such as a purchase order. An XML tag for a price or number of items, for example, makes it easy for a computer to automatically pull that data and deliver it to another application.

DTDs will also offer compatibility with EDI.

"cXML will provide a way to convert an XML document to EDI - or manage them side by side," Wilkinson says.

The Data Interchange Standards Association (DISA) last year started working with an industry forum called the XML/EDI Group to map the hundreds of historic X12 transaction sets to XML documents. But this work is proceeding far too slowly, Wilkinson says.

"The Internet commerce people aren't going to wait for DISA," he adds.

Customers are optimistic about the plan.

"We're interested in cXML because it's going to let us take data from our Office Online electronic catalog and bring it back into the Ariba system and then pass it on to the manufacturer," says Chuck Origer, sales manager in McGraw Hill's CAP division.

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