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Major vendors show OBI support

Backers of OBI hope that a demo showing that software from different vendors can communicate with each other will boost the protocol.

Backers of a protocol to make online procurement easier are hoping that a demonstration later this week that software from different vendors can communicate with each other will boost the Open Buying on the Internet protocol.

OBI is designed as a standard for online catalogs--the goal is to make it easier for sellers to update product data and easier for buyers to integrate catalogs into their internal procurement systems. The protocol describes formats for catalog listings.

OBI uses existing Internet technologies to automate the sale and purchase of low-cost, high-volume items used in many businesses, including paper goods, PCs, and travel services. It is not designed to buy production materials, and it is not designed for any specific industry.

While OBI addresses a major headache for online buyers and sellers--the labor intensive work of changing and updating catalogs--in order for it to be a success buying organizations must support the standard.

"OBI's biggest hurdle is not how many technology vendors sign on, but how widely it is embraced by the end user community--those Fortune 1000 companies looking to streamline procurement," said Scott Smith, e-commerce analyst at Current Analysis.

Erina DuBois, of Dataquest, thinks OBI could reduce the amount of work suppliers must do to customize catalogs for different buyers.

"If you talk to any suppliers, interoperability is an issue. If they pass the costs on to buyers, it kind of defeats the purpose," DuBois said.

Erica Ruguilles of Giga Information Group worries OBI does not address buyers that want to maintain multiple catalogs on their own Web site for internal purchasing.

But Patrick Gannon, executive of the OBI consortium, says most buying organizations want to get away from maintaining catalogs on their own sites.

"There are other ways to achieve some of the capability of hosted catalog systems," Gannon said, noting that one reason for buyers to host catalogs is to have a consistent interface. "If you can achieve a consistent look and feel across multiple vendor catalogs and not have to host and maintain the catalogs, then you achieve the same result."

However, Gannon said version 1.1 does not support the consistent interface among multiple catalogs.

Michael Putnam, of Forrester Research, said industry-specific standards are what will boost online commerce.

"OBI is not as important as something like RosettaNet," Putnam said, mentioning an effort in the computer industry to get common standards for use by IT companies in buying and selling online. "Industry efforts will be the ones that succeed--OBI is too broad to achieve [wide acceptance]."

However, Gannon sits on RosettaNet's board, and the two groups support each other's efforts.

Participants in the OBI demonstration include American Express, BOC Gases, Boise Cascade Office Products, Connect, EPIC Systems, GTE, Hoffmann--La Roche, IBM, Intelisys Electronic Commerce LLC, Microsoft, Netscape, Office Depot, PartNET, and VWR Scientific Products. KPMG Consulting is serving as the project coordinator for this event.

OBI backer Netscape announced today that it's shipping a new version of its BuyerXpert software, which supports OBI.