the past year and a half, I have attended seminars, subscribed
to XML list groups, bought books and in general anxiously awaited
the flowering of this next great technology break through called XML
(extensible markup language). This subset of HTML is supposed to let
business seamlessly communicate with each other using the Internet
quickly and cheaply.
In spite of all the rhetoric and high expectations we're not there
I love standards because there are so many of them. Oh, there
are a number of groups who are furiously working on developing standards.
Groups like RosettaNet, Microsoft's Biztalk, DISA, OASIS, and Commerce
ONE. Various trade associations including electronic manufacturers,
real estate, and automotive are also pushing their versions of e-commerce
using XML. Too many groups with competing objectives are all publishing
DDTs (data definition types) or schemas and instead of bringing different
business together, just the opposite is happening.
It's dejavu all over again
Back in the dark ages of the 70's and 80's when EDI was struggling
for acceptance, the event that led to wide spread adoption of EDI
was the acceptance of published standards from groups like DISA, with
its X12 standards and EDIFACT sponsored by the UN. Exactly how wide
spread EDI became is questionable. After more than 20 years only 5%
of business in this country are EDI enabled even though 95% of the
FORTUNE 500 are. The reason most of the SME (small to medium enterprise)
business never adopted EDI was there simply was not enough benefit
to justify the expense. It was never just a matter of technical issues
to be resolved. In order for a business to cost justify EDI two factors
had to be present. First, was an established list of trading partners
with whom information needed to be exchanged in sufficient volume
and over a long enough time frame to justify the expense.
Second, the trading partners also had to be EDI capable and willing
to expend the internal resources necessary to maintain their side
of the transactions.
There are a two widely held positions within the EDI trading community,
One is that most of the SME companies that have adopted EDI technology
did so at the instance of a large dominant trading partner. There
are many examples of large companies in retail and automotive who
have forced their vendors to do EDI with them. Two, in many cases
even after a company installs an EDI system, they do not integrate
it into their back office systems and as a result loose any benefit
that might be gained from reducing data entry and its associated errors.
I have heard many times "they used to fax us their orders now
we get an EDI document which we print out and manually enter into
So what is XML going to do that EDI couldn't? Will it be as easy to
use as a fax? After all you need to send a fax is someone's phone
number. Will virtually any business be able to use it with out special
equipment and training? Is it going to be something you can explain
how to do over the phone in a sixty second conversation?
The answer to all these questions is no! At least not anytime soon.
The tools and the standards just arent there yet. I believe
that in the near future commercially available tools will handle most
of the technical issues and allow users to concentrate on content.
After all about five years ago when I was trying to develop our first
web site the tools and technology were scarce and very basic. Today,
ten year olds are putting up web sites in a few hours that professionals
couldn't do in a month back then.
I predict that in the future we will be able to buy a small box that
handles translation, encryption, repudiation as well as security and
communications that will just plug into a network as a dedicated server.
Until we get there it appears that only the big guys will be able
to justify XML or ebXML to solve the problems that EDI could not address
and expand the use of e-commerce into small and medium enterprises.