OASIS Proposes Standard for Business Documents
But will companies adopt common language that crosses industries?
By Yvonne L. Lee
May 15, 2003 — The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) is proffering what it hopes will be a universal language for business documents used on the Web. But the universal language could turn out to be a computer version of Esperanto—a language invented for cross-cultural communication that never has gained wide adoption.
The Universal Business Language (UBL) seeks to find a single vocabulary for what OASIS (www.oasis-open.org) calls the “payload” or the actual content of documents, such as purchase orders and invoices exchanged in conducting business. It works with ebXML, which specifies how messages are passed, stored and identified.
Analysts think the effort is unnecessary because there aren’t many businesses that exchange documents across industries, and when they do, it’s usually done from separate divisions using a specific industry’s protocols. Furthermore, when businesses need to communicate, an industry leader usually determines the ground rules, not a standards body.
Using Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), companies conducted business on private networks using more expensive mainframe tools. With ebXML, the data format is a text-based XML document that any company can use. In addition, because transactions travel across the Internet, businesses don’t need to invest in private networks. “Now, they can do it vastly more cheaply than you could under EDI,” said Jon Bozak, distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems Inc. and technical chair for the UBL committee. However, either standard can be used apart from the other. The problem with the UBL effort, said Ron Schmelzer, senior analyst at ZapThink LLC, a research firm specializing in XML and Web services, is that not only do businesses conduct few transactions across industries, there is also little overlap in the documents used across industries.
“The percentage they have in common is very small,” he said. “[The standard] may be good enough to do addresses, but to do anything important in a business, you have to negotiate anyhow.”
Bozak acknowledged that incorporating all the different fields used in all the different industries could result in an unwieldy standard. “We’re trying to solve 80 percent of the problems with 20 percent markup.”
Analysts say that for all its good intentions, the standard for business documents will be settled the same way that societies settle on a language for business communication: by doing what the major economic powers want them to do.
“There is a certain amount of de facto standardization that is happening already,” said Daniel Sholler, vice president of technology research at Meta Group Inc. “I call that the Wal-Mart effect. Wal-Mart decides to do something, and every consumer products company adheres to it.” The companies that need to do business with one another electronically will use formats specified by the large businesses in their industries, he said.
However, there isn’t a business incentive for large companies to change their business documents to formats that happen to be used in other industries where they may not have trading partners, Sholler said, and even large organizations with many trading partners may not need to standardize to a single format. “It’s hard for me to imagine that the government’s going to come up with a common set of business objects for how they purchase electricity to electrify the fence on the Mexican border, to buy toilet paper for the FBI office in Chicago, and buy the B-1 bomber,” he said.
One indication that businesses and customers aren’t driving the UBL effort is the absence of computer industry “heavyweights,” ZapThink’s Schmelzer pointed out. Instead, he said he believes UBL is a Sun-driven effort.
“If there was customer drive, it’s hard to see how IBM and Microsoft would not be involved in this,” Schmelzer said. The only major technology player besides Sun involved in the effort is Hewlett-Packard, which has a single representative. “If Jon Bozak was not driving this, it’s hard to see how even Sun would be behind this,” he added.
Both Schmelzer and Meta Group’s Sholler said they believed that if the UBL effort did not succeed, cross-industry specifications would come about organically.
The UBL committee has liaisons with the insurance, retail sales, electronics, health care, convenience stores, banking, utilities, optical supplies, information technology and accounting industries.
The updated draft version of UBL finished review in April. Version 1.0, expected in May, will incorporate comments from that review.