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E-commerce standards pushed

Thirty major players launch a two-year push to implement standards for enabling Net-based supply chain management.

Worried that e-commerce standards are being set but not adopted, some 30 major software, hardware, distribution, and retail players have launched a two-year push to implement standards for enabling Internet-based supply chain management.

As reported in March, RosettaNet aims to work with major vendors to define "a language for electronic business for the computer sector," in the words of former Ingram Micro executive Fadi Chehadé, RosettaNet's chief executive.

Represented on RosettaNet's 28-member executive board are American Express, Cisco Systems, Compaq, CompUSA, EDS, Federal Express, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Netscape Communications, and UPS.

The impetus that drives RosettaNet is that e-commerce standards such as Open Buying on the Internet (OBI) are being negotiated and written in standards bodies, but few IT companies are using them.

"We feel there were too many splintered efforts and nothing to put us on a common path," Chehadé said. "There is a very obvious cynicism and skepticism about the ability of this industry to come together on any collaborative efforts."

RosettaNet, a nonprofit group, is targeted very specifically to major global players in information technology, excluding mainframes and telecommunications. The global scope of the new group is underscored by the presence on its board of Swiss electrical engineering firm ABB, European distributor CHS, lender Deutsche Financial Services, the federal government's purchasing arm General Services Administration, and Japan's Toshiba.

"We all need to set a base dictionary and base set of rules to do business," Chehadé said of RosettaNet's task. "That is not a fancy set of words to redefine EDI"--a reference to widely used but expensive electronic data interchange systems, which send forms-based transactions directly from computer to computer without human intervention.

RosettaNet's vision grew out of the experience of Chehadé and Linda York, the consortium's vice president of operations, in building an interoperable catalog to link their employer, computer distributor Ingram Micro, with networking firm 3Com. When finished, the project could not be replicated.

"Custom one-offs between each partner that cannot be replicated are not the promise of how business can cooperate," Chehadé said. The new wave is "build to order," which must be extended throughout the supply chain.

"In this model, business flexibility becomes important as opposed to business efficiency," Chehadé said.

The Internet enables these new capabilities, but each industry must create its own set of common attributes--standardized descriptions, part numbers, pricing data, credit checks, inventory status, checking order status, and accepting orders.

Chehadé said XML (eXtensible Markup Language) will be a key element of the common language and rules for communicating. He expressed a desire to build on standards work already done, not to redo it but to implement it.

In an effort to get high-level buy-in for its efforts, RosettaNet has recruited as board members senior executives in member companies, not the mid-level technical managers who generally write the standards.

In addition, it has pulled in a variety of standards bodies as partners, including CommerceNet, CompTIA, the Information Technology Association of America, U.S. government agency National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Software Publishers Association.

Other partner categories include toolmakers that will write software to implement standards and systems integrators that can build systems to implement RosettaNet's work on a broad scale.