XML: The new face of e-commerce

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Electronic documents

XML, a way to code documents for easy transfer between applications, is widely seen as a key enabling technology for e-commerce in the future. Today's HTML-based Web just can't provide the flexible searching and data exchange that format-neutral XML conveys. But the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) XML 1.0 specification, now more than 1 year old, hasn't been enough to grease the wheels of e-commerce. Trading partners still have to agree on what each XML-based business document will look like in order to ensure the smooth exchange of information online.

If this challenge sounds familiar, that's because it's the same one faced when using an older e-commerce technology, electronic data interchange. For years, EDI users met in long sessions to hammer out document types, such as purchase orders and shipping notices, that became the X12 or EDI for Administration, Commerce and Transport (EDIFACT) standards used today by the transportation, manufacturing, grocery, retailing and computer industries.

Many large corporations, such as Wal-Mart, Mobil and General Motors, require their trading partners to use EDI documents for certain business transactions. Even though EDI data can be captured through Web forms these days, EDI is still considered time-consuming and expensive to deploy between trading partners. There are already signs XML may usurp EDI's role in e-commerce.

When start-up ClubComputer in Nellies Ford, Va., began selling a large number of PCs over the Web, the company was asked by its distributor, Merisel, to start using EDI instead of e-mail to send purchase orders to Merisel representatives.

This would eliminate the need for Merisel representatives to retype ClubComputer's data into back-end ordering systems.

"When I looked at the expense of that, mapping the EDI data and paying for the value-added network, I said, 'I can't really afford that,'" says Dennis Tracz, CEO of ClubComputer. "And we really don't have the expertise for [working with EDI]."

Rolling out EDI would have cost ClubComputer roughly $25,000 per month, Tracz says. So the company instead joined an early effort by Merisel to receive sales data using XML for computer-to-computer exchange between sellers and the distributor.

Using OnDisplay's XML repository, ClubComputer can transfer order data it gets over the Web directly into a Merisel enterprise resource planning system. Merisel generates shipping notices and other updates and sends them to ClubComputer's OnDisplay repository using XML.

While at $100,000 the OnDisplay XML repository doesn't come cheap, Tracz still thinks he's doing better than he would with EDI.

While most companies have yet to begin rolling out XML technology across their enterprise or interenterprise networks, the word is getting out about XML's potential.

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