Gorilla tactics

Let's talk about implementing XML-based B2B e-commerce. Wait -- don't run away! We can talk about something else! Like, say, gorillas, OK? Let's talk about gorillas. Big, hairy, 800-pound gorillas.

Let’s talk about implementing XML-based B2B e-commerce. Wait -- don’t run away!

We can talk about something else! Like, say, gorillas, OK? Let’s talk about gorillas. Big, hairy, 800-pound gorillas. You know the ones -- the kind that can dictate to their business partners just exactly how business will be done.

Those 800-pound gorillas will decide how we’ll all do XML-based e-business. They’ll decide when and how and in what form. And then everyone else will do what they say.

See? Talking about implementing XML-based e-business wasn’t so hard after all, was it?

Wait, you say, what about all those standards committees and industry consortia, all the groups with competing and overlapping proposals that make your eyes glaze over with their endless buzzwords and pronouncements about universal XML e-business standards? Won’t they be the ones who finally come to a consensus on this stuff?

Sure, they’ll come up with something. Maybe the gorillas will go for it, maybe not. One thing is certain, though: If your company is a gorilla, you’ll pick the flavor that gives you the biggest advantage. Otherwise, the gorillas in your supply chain will tell you which flavors to use. And if you want to sell to the gorillas, you’ll use them.

Who says so? History.

Remember, XML isn’t the first pitch we’ve heard for universal e-business standards. We’ve got a pretty good idea how it plays out from the last time around -- when we did electronic data interchange (EDI).

For the uninitiated, EDI is a standard system of electronic documents -- order forms, invoices, bills of lading. EDI forms have lots of options because in theory, the same set of EDI forms can be used for almost any business transaction in any industry, with any buyer and any supplier. (Sound familiar, XML fans?)

But that’s not how EDI was actually implemented. Instead, some 800-pound gorilla in the supply chain told its partners: "Here are the EDI forms we use. They’re not the full, standard EDI forms because that would add a lot of complexity we don’t want. That means you’ll have to buy a customised EDI system. But if you want to sell to us, do it our way."

Of course, the customised EDI forms that one 800-pound gorilla dictated weren’t the same as the versions other gorillas used, even in the same industry. And all the non-gorillas grumbled about having to implement a different EDI system for every 800-pound gorilla they sold to.

But the gorillas got their way.

So why should XML be different from EDI? Not because there are more competing flavours, with consortia and committees and task forces all over the map. None of that changes the basic reality that 800-pound gorillas do pretty much whatever they want.

And not because of the internet marketplaces that XML is supposed to enable. After the dot-com die-off, the surviving marketplaces are run by -- who else? -- 800-pound gorillas. They’ll still choose the flavour they like and tweak it to their advantage. The only difference: A few gorillas may agree on the same tweaks.

And certainly not just to further industry standardisation. Standardisation is an advantage for little guys, not for 800-pound gorillas who can get whatever they demand.

So next time you hear a pronouncement from an XML e-business standards consortium, take it with a healthy dollop of salt. If you really want to know what XML e-business standards you’ll need, ask the 800-pound gorillas in your supply chain.

If they can’t tell you, there’s not much to talk about.

Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Send email to Frank Hayes.

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