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Sun boosts UBL to unify XML dialects

Jon Bosak gets a faraway look in his eyes when he talks about the potential of the Universal Business Language (UBL), which he hopes will someday unify the various business electronic commerce ''dialects'' of XML. Bosak, who holds the title of Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems, is the current chair of the UBL Technical Committee of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

''I'm wondering whether we might not get a Napster-like effect out of this,'' Bosak told eADT during a break at last week's Sun Network conference in San Francisco. ''The thing that made the Web explode was HTML, which turned it into an unmediated publishing medium. I could decide to publish something, and you could decide to read it, and we didn't need the publisher. Maybe UBL will create an unmediated business environment that could take off under its own power.''

But Bosak dismisses his own speculations as ''dreamy stuff.'' The real promise of UBL, he said, is much more modest, but no less compelling: UBL is being designed to serve as a synthesis of existing XML business document libraries.

The man who organized and led the W3C working group that created the XML specification, prides himself on his pragmatism. Without it, he said, progress on the UBL project would be much slower.

''We're making very good progress [on UBL],'' he said, ''because we were willing to do the politically incorrect, but very pragmatic thing. I guess you could say that we cheated, because we weren't willing to start from scratch. But we figured, and I think correctly, that that would have added several years to the timeline.''

Instead, he and the other members of the UBL committee, of which he is the current chair, looked around for a large, existing XML library with had a copyright that allowed for the creation of derivative works. After sorting through the available XML business schemas they settled on xCBL from Commerce One and SAP.

''We're starting with something that had four years of development already in it,'' Bosak said, ''and it already had both flavors of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) cooked into it.''

That decision worried industry watchers, however, because xCBL was one of the commercial contenders. ''In the beginning the great fear was that we were going to rubber stamp Commerce One and SAP's data format,'' Bosak explains, ''which I have to say would have been okay with me if that's what it took to do something real. But I once we got this stuff into committee, even the people you would expect to have a vested interest in keeping it the same were ready to change it and make it better. Consequently, what we're working on right now has very little resemblance to what we started with.''

A library is essential to the goals of the UBL project, Bosak said. ''We wanted a library so that all the documents would share common pieces,'' he said. ''We couldn't begin to accomplish the future work of the context methodology without a library approach. It's also the best approach for version control.''

The second major UBL library review is currently underway. This package includes the data model and XML schema for a library of approximately 500 reusable business information entities (BIEs) plus UBL Order and UBL Order Response.

''It's not really all that sexy to talk about business forms and purchase orders,'' Bosak said, ''but the result [of the UBL project] will be a standard set of XML business document schemas that anyone, anywhere can download and use without having to pay for the privilege and without running into any ownership problems.''

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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