About three dozen e-commerce vendors, from old-line electronic data interchange software firms to up-and-coming electronic catalogue suppliers, are backing an effort to standardise Extensible Markup Language (XML) elements for online purchases.
Spearheaded by online catalogue 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.
Newer than EDI, XML offers a format-neutral way to prepare documents using coding tags to define their syntax, allowing it to be easily converted to other formats, 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.
Dave Wilkinson, director of product architecture at Sterling Commerce, 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.