With a French dictionary and a guide to grammar on hand, someone would be able to figure out that the French phrase "Couper la poire en deux" translates to "Divide the pear in two" in English. What it actually means is to meet someone halfway, something quite different.
As AltaVista Co.s Babel Fish translation site can hilariously demonstrate, lexical correctness doesnt necessarily mean semantic correctness.
UBL (Universal Business Language) is an effort to drive XML grammars closer to semantic understanding and is one of a long line of similar attempts to provide organizations with standard formats for common business entities.
As Sun Microsystems Inc.s Jon Bosak comments above, "People seem to forget that were not inventing a worldwide system of trade; weve already got one of those, and its taken about 4,000 years to put it in place." UBL tries to stay away from reinvention by sticking just to describing generic business operations performed by organizations that sell packaged goods.
It boils down to XML-based data structures for seven business objects: Order, Order Response (simple), Order Response (complex), Order Cancellation, Dispatch Advice, Receipt Advice and Invoice.
Extensive documentation and use of XML Schema data types and constraints provide trading partners with a greater assurance that theyll be able to exchange information with semantic accuracy. It doesnt provide for sub-line items or packaging within packaging in its data structures because these are areas that are quite specific to particular business contexts.
I think UBL has a promising future ahead of it, but its also important to remember that XML-based e-commerce isnt dependent on these kinds of standards for its success. There will always be differences in how organizations represent information, and waiting for one specification to emerge will mean waiting forever.
Semantic negotiations will always be required, XML or no XML. XMLs core benefit is that its designed to handle structural changes in data documents gracefully, and for what it doesnt handle on its own, theres a powerful mechanism in place through Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations to allow for more complex types of changes.
If UBL maps well to how an organization represents its data, then it will be a helpful technology. If not, XML and XML Schema will continue to provide the best way for organizations to negotiate their own XML grammars with business partners (as they have been doing all along).
West Coast Technical Director Timothy Dyck can be reached at email@example.com.