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Internal spat over e-commerce

XML/EDI Group steps on toes while winning praise for the new method for conducting business-to-business data exchange over the Internet that its promoting.

    Ad-hoc organization XML/EDI Group is winning praise for a new method for conducting business-to-business data exchange over the Internet, which it's promoting. But the group has stepped on a few toes in the process.

    The organization posted to its Web site an initial draft of guidelines for using the emerging XML (eXtensible Markup Language) Internet standard for improving business-to-business data exchange over the Internet.

    However, a press release announcing the posting of the draft ruffled some feathers.

    First the organization, which conducts an Internet newsgroup discussion on the topic, slammed Actra, an e-commerce software joint venture of Netscape Communications and GE Information Systems for not participating in the XML/EDI Group's activities.

    Then it drew a rebuke from the standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium for mentioning the W3C in its press release without official notification and for saying, contrary to W3C policy, that it planned to submit its guidelines to W3C.

    W3C had no comment about what it called a "very serious issue."

    Lincoln Yarbrough, an Actra product manager, called the criticism by the group "not very nice" and said his company has missed discussions of the XML/EDI guidelines due to scheduling conflicts. He noted that Actra had played a major role in writing the EDINET standards for EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) over the Internet.

    EDI is a way of sending communications or documents over private networks, communicating directly from one computer to another without human intervention. Many major manufacturers have set up EDI systems as a way to communicate with their suppliers.

    But traditional EDI is costly to set up and generally moves data across secure private networks. EDI boosters see the Internet as a way to reduce EDI communications costs, while XML could be used to set up EDI trading relationships more easily.

    "XML is one of several new technologies that should make electronic commerce easier, but XML is so new that it's not going to be in any products for a while--it remains to prove itself," Yarbrough said.

    "There are a lot of choices on what you base an e-commerce application on," he added, mentioning other potential standards such as OBI (open buying on the Internet) or CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture).

    Like Actra, other EDI software companies see XML as a way to expand the use of EDI over the Internet.

    "EDI is a really good idea that has been fairly slow in practice to be used," said Robert Glushko, director of component-based commerce for CN Group, a for-profit spin-off of CommerceNet an Internet commerce trade group.

    "XML/EDI gives a more formal, self-descriptive way of saying what's going on [in EDI transactions]," Glushko said. His start-up is working on using XML for EDI but won't have products until next year, he said.

    He dubbed the XML/EDI proposal "an attractive vision," calling the four men behind the XML/EDI Group "a small group of very earnest people generating ideas on how it might work." Without much institutional backing, he added, they have done a good job of evangelizing the ideas.

    Glushko said XML would allow EDI users to use tags written in everyday language to describe items for sale: price, quantity, product numbers, availability, and so on.

    CommerceNet, the e-commerce advocacy group, also is pushing EDI over the Internet via a new XML/EDI Task Force that is investigating the use of XML with Internet-based catalogs.

    "I applaud the [XML/EDI Group's] efforts in term of generating discussion on the topic of how XML can enhance commerce on the Internet, but in no way can it be characterized as a formal document supported or endorsed by any of 200 companies they claim as members of the group," said Patrick Gannon, a consultant to CommerceNet in its EDI efforts. Gannon also is chief executive of Shopping Direct.