Rivals agree on Web buying standard

Filling out forms on e-commerce sites could get a little easier, thanks to an agreement by a group of major tech companies on a single standard for electronic wallets.

Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems, America Online have all agreed to back the new standard, the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language (ECML).

ECML uses a series of uniform field names that allows merchants to grab data out of a preset form. That way, consumers only have to fill out their information -- such as billing and shipping addresses -- one time.

The new standard is also being backed by credit card companies Visa USA, MasterCard, and America Express, and by electronic merchants, such as Dell, Beyond.com Hollywood Entertainment Corp.'s Reel.com subsidiary, and Nordstroms.com. "ECML advances the Internet shopping experience," Beyond.com vice president Mala Ananad said in a release. "People who shop on the Internet want the ease of an electronic wallet online that has their credit card, billing and shipping information inside."

Companies have been trying to sell consumers on electronic wallets for some time, but so far, they have not caught on all that well. Many of them were initially intended to hold some form of digital cash, something consumers initially resisted.

The ECML standard acts more as an automated form, transferring data about the consumer to the merchant. Consumers would still use traditional payment methods, such as credit cards. As simple as that may seem, it could solve a large problem for online merchants. A study conducted by Jupiter Communications earlier this year found that 27 percent of online buyers abandon orders before check out due to problems filling out the forms.

Other companies have come up with similar products that do the data entry for consumers, and,some merchants have set up "one-click" programs that allow consumers to store data with them. Setting up a common standard will expand the number of sites where automatic form-filling can be done without error.

To put the new standard into effect, merchant sites simply have to rename their the fields on their checkout pages to match the ECML standard.

America Online and Microsoft had both announced plans to ship wallets earlier this year.