The following article was prepared by Mike Taylor, C.P.M. for distribution to NAPM affiliate newsletters. 
August 11, 2001

What Language are you Buying?

Surprise, e-commerce is not a universal language! Suppliers, 3rd party facilitators, e-commerce markets, web portals and software developers are all competing for our on-line business. Not only are they competing for our business on the front end with better web sites and on-line service, many are also competing on the back end with different underlying structures and programming languages.

The good news: Competition has made it easier and less expensive to start using e-commerce tools and conduct buying on line. Even small suppliers can set up on-line ordering web site easily and inexpensively. New web programming languages and techniques have made it easier for sellers to provide interactive web sites and serve our needs without having to use expensive 3rd parties.

The bad news: The are many choices for suppliers to use in setting web portals and unless we ask, we'll never know when a supplier may be using a proprietary technology.

The good news: The dot com shakeout is reducing the variability and consolidating the functionality.

The bad news: Unsuspecting buyers can get locked into using a technology that may not be flexible enough to support future business needs.

E-Commerce is becoming much more web-centric. That is, applications run on the web and use web interfaces to perform typical user functions. Instead of having a separate mainframe program running a purchasing system, new applications use web technology to perform tasks, build databases and query information directly from a user's internet browser. This is great for users, because they only have to install and understand one piece of software. Also, web-centric  applications can be "Amazon dot com simple" to use (no training required). Web applications are generally thin client (not a lot of software installed on a user machine).

This is great. It means we can dial up a supplier and start using their web site just as soon as we can get the proper Trading Partner and Security agreements in place. Also, by setting up web-centric programs using an Open Architecture model, data and information can easily be transferred between applications. XML(extensible markup language) is one new tool that will make that process much easier.

However, be forewarned: Some of the new web programming languages are not interchangeable. XML will make it easier for on-line orders to be exchanged among many companies and data to updated in our existing inventory or financial systems. Among other things XML "tags" piece of data on a web page, so for example a part number can be differentiated from a unit price.  However, XML also has at least 4 or more competing versions. As a result, the XML language used by one e-commerce company may not talk to vendors who have set up their web sites using a competing version. At the least you will end up having to purchase a "black-box" software program to translate between them.

A shakeout is coming, but until then buyers need to be cautious about putting too much time and effort into any one technology. Before entering into long term e-commerce agreements here are a few questions I suggest you ask the supplier. (Note: Find a geek to help you and make sure that your geek understands a buyer's paranoia about getting locked into one supplier or product.)

  • Does the application use XML tagging? If not are there plans to convert it soon?
  • What version of XML are you using or planning to use?
  • What plans have you made to make sure that your XML version will be compatible with other versions? As part of our agreement will you furnish translation software if it becomes necessary?
  • Is the application going to be an open architecture design that I can easily connect to my existing systems? Prove it by showing me an example.
  • As always, if the supplier doesn't understand the concern and/or is unwilling to make you feel warm and fuzzy on the subject; caveat emptor.
  • Several organizations are actively pursuing standards for XML and on-line ordering. Here are some references in case you want to find more information on the subject.

  • XML.ORG A portal for XML information by OASIS
  •  Business Week Magazine had a great non-technical article on this subject. July 23, 2001, by Jim Kerstetter. 
  • W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. The body that loosely tries to govern the world Wide Web. 
  • Rosettanet: a consortium of companies that have been working on web standards for many years.
  • The OBI consortium. Another group of companies working on Internet Standards.
  • International Standards Organization. The UN organization that has set many manufacturing and industry standards.
  • Biztalk: Guess which major software company is behind this group trying to make their version the standard.
  • Ariba: This E-commerce giant has their own version they call cXML.
  • Bottom line:

    XML comes in several conflicting versions. As a result e-commerce and on-line ordering applications may not all be compatible. That means we have to do some homework before getting locked into a long-term or expensive implementation. Sure do the quick and easy stuff now and get some practice. But don't make the big commitment until you are sure where you are jumping.

    Before changing business processes and buying into an on-line ordering process, ask a few questions and make sure you are not buying a soon-to-be obsolete process.


    MLTWEB is assembled and maintained by Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M. 
    Materials and articles prepared by Mike may be shared for purchasing education provided that this source is cited and no fee is charged. The rights for any other use are withheld.
    Copyright;  Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M.
    Last Updated: 11/26/2016