Commerce One and the Holy Grail of B2B standards

Commerce One's decision to give up - at least temporarily - on the search for agreed standards for e-marketplaces shows the complexity inherent in any industry-wide B2B movement. But is this latest move a short-term boost for buyers and sellers, or just plain short-sighted? Sonya Rabbitte investigates...

Commerce One's decision to give up - at least temporarily - on the search for agreed standards for e-marketplaces shows the complexity inherent in any industry-wide B2B movement. But is this latest move a short-term boost for buyers and sellers, or just plain short-sighted? Sonya Rabbitte investigates...

It doesn't take the world's hottest tipster to work out the odds against the harmonisation of global B2B trading standards happening any time soon. For one thing, as long as Ariba and IBM continue to scowl across the metaphorical marketplace at Commerce One and Microsoft it's unlikely to happen. The big players don't want to play ball. That's understandable. After all, having a competitive edge is a trait older than industry itself. But is rivalry over standards stifling progress? It's obviously a question that has been mulled over in the collective minds of Commerce One. According to this major applications vendor, unified global trading standards are a long way off. And as one of the main protagonists, they should know. So to kick-start cross exchange trading the company is developing a search technology in association with partner SAP. The idea is to be able to access of information across different exchanges, regardless of the type of XML format companies use for cataloguing. Despite the fact that Commerce One heads a recently launched standards body, the Global Trading Web Association, it seems to take a dim view of current B2B standards initiatives. The issue is more complex than most pro standard groups seem to realise, according to Commerce One's VP of Product Marketing, Kevin Schick. He warned that the current focus on standardised content is too narrow. Cataloguing all files in the same XML format is just the first hurdle. Achieve that and you're then faced with the task of accessing the infrastructure that houses the various exchanges. And guess what - these too are all built on different technologies. According to Schick, Commerce One made the decision to develop search technology because the standards issue is progressing too slowly. "We're no closer to creating standards because companies involved in the marketplaces have traditionally been competitors and could never agree. Standardisation could take years," he warned. That's a possible explanation for why Commerce One has refused in the past to acknowledge the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), a UN-backed initiative for implementing global electronic trading standards. Beth Barling, analyst with AMR Research, agrees with Schick that standards are complex and need time to develop. But she is cautious about how long they will take to come to fruition. "If we're talking about a marketplace nirvana, then a decade seems about right. We're not just talking about catalogue standards. It's also about workflow standards. Catalogue standards are just a short-term goal. I'm not sure if we'll ever reach that stage of an entirely unified global network," she said. Andy Tanner Smith, research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, is a bit more optimistic about the standards debate. However, in the absence of standards there is nothing wrong with an interim solution, he said. "The search engine strategy is quite clever. It negates the standards issue for the short term. I think the competition will concentrate on the standards side, and Commerce One are doing this to circumnavigate that issue." However, he warned that the standards debate should not be dismissed entirely, as they will need to be addressed in the long term. And intra-industry disputes are not the only obstacle in the way of standards development. For some companies search technology is simply a better choice right now. Acequote.com is an independent B2B e-marketplace linking buyers and suppliers of IT services and products using search technology. Co-founder Helga St. Blaize believes that while the market is still new, standards - or lack of them - are not relevant for niche players. She claims SMEs will continue to demand personalised trading processes even as markets develop. She said: "Search technology makes good business sense. You need to build up a rapport with the buyer. Sometimes smaller, cosier set ups are easier to work with than dealing with a large ocean of suppliers. Ultimately, when it's all a little more sophisticated, marketplaces like ours will still have a place offering a personalised service." Even CompTIA, an independent global body promoting standards and certification in the technology sector, is reluctant to get too enthusiastic about common B2B standards, regardless of the fact that Commerce One is a member of their ecommerce standards board. Michael Booth, CompTIA lobbyist, said: "I have to admit we have avoided the issue for the past few years because it's so complex. It's very difficult to get major players together to discuss standards. We need to adopt a different approach with these people, driving progress by demand instead of vested interests." Commerce One has vocalised what everyone else is thinking - the move towards a unified set of trading standards is a long way off. And perhaps more so than any industry rivalries, the sheer scale and complexity of the issue are the major obstacles. However, search technology is not the ideal solution. In the short term it is a way for Commerce One to meet customer needs, and arguably grab a lead in the market. A more definite answer, suggest analysts, is a move to meta markets - portals that link various marketplaces. But even these won't solve the question of rivalry and exclusivity. How many meta markets will there be? Will they interoperate? One thing is certain - the B2B landscape is set to change radically over the next few years. We're just not sure how.