The United Nations body for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/ Cefact) and the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis) met in Orlando to initiate a worldwide project to standardise XML, the Web's standard for structured data.
The move is intended to prevent a battle between suppliers over XML similar to the row between Sun and Microsoft over Java, which has continued in the courts. Such a row would cause chaos for users struggling to build e-commerce projects.
The five-day meeting attracted 120 delegates from all the major XML players, including Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and Sun, and e-commerce trade associations such as the UK's E-centre, and the Association for Payment Clearing Services.
The companies have agreed in principle to make their current XML-based offerings, like Microsoft's Biztalk and CommerceOne's cXML, compliant with ebXML in the future.
The purpose of the initiative is "to develop a technical framework that will enable XML to be used in a consistent manner for the exchange of all electronic business data".
There are currently more than 200 suppliers and industry groups working on their own incompatible schemas. Ray Walker, head of UN/ Cefact, warned, "We must avoid a Tower of Babel at all costs."
The end product of ebXML will not be a single world-wide language, like the Edifact standard devised 15 years ago for EDI exchanges, but a set of "interoperability mechanisms". These will cover core components for business messages, security mechanisms, technical architecture and transport layers.
The ebXML team will develop a draft specification before the next meeting in May. However, the major players made it clear at a preliminary meeting last November that ebXML must deliver results very quickly, if it is to retain their support.