CHICAGO -- XML, or Extensible Markup Language, may just turn out to be the solution the supermarket industry needs to solve many of its pressing Internet integration issues. "XML is standards based and that is absolutely key," said Greg Zwanziger, director, e-commerce, Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn., speaking at the Retail Systems 2000 show here last month.
Compared with the versatility of XML for transmitting information, electronic data interchange is considered inflexible. "XML has much broader applicability throughout the organization. It's not just business-to-business that is going to be using XML."
Supervalu is currently testing XML as it serves as one of the pilot companies for the UCCnet project, he added.
XML is a programming language similar to the widely used HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), but with a tag structure that can be read more easily. As one industry source put it, "XML provides the digital dial tone for business-to-business communications." "We need standardization behind the process. It's not a proprietary format that everybody has to map into some company's solution. So robust solutions are being developed. It's interoperable," Zwanziger said.
Commenting on the notion that "EDI is dead," Zwanziger noted, "EDI is a solution that works today, but EDI is a solution that is not going to take us very far down the road. And you will see XML evolve far faster than EDI ever did." For big organizations like Supervalu, EDI is viable, but it is more problematic for smaller companies, he said.
"XML is a technology that offers a solution that can leverage EDI with the new Internet world. That's the way standards are being developed," he said.
Many companies are developing software for XML and that is one of most important reasons for retailers to become better acquainted with it, he said.
"It can do more than EDI can do. It can allow for the transport of more robust formats than just structured data formats. It can tie right in to the visual interface and you can allow business people to actually interface with the system, and allow for doing data queries right off of the data format itself. EDI is much more structured and you have to reformat the data. The vendors out there are jumping on board rapidly. The high-tech industry has fully embraced it. Other industries are driving to it," he said.
The soon to be launched UCCnet is based on XML, noted Scott Williams, executive on loan to UCCnet from Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, where he is senior manager, global e-business development. "XML is going to be the standard and the only way we will be able to communicate directly through UCCnet. In the EDI environment, if you are going to add a segment to a loop within an EDI transaction, you have a lot of work to do." This is time-consuming and difficult for all trading partners. "XML takes care of that. All that is required is simple ISP linkage, a single communication standard, and you've got instant data file synchronization," he said.
"We are building UCCnet based on XML to take advantage of what it can do," said Zwanziger.
Not only is XML is easier to use, but it is quicker to implement, said industry sources, who predict a rapid conversion to the protocol. "We see supply chains really competing and the supply chains that can deploy more quickly using transparent technology are the ones that are going to win," commented one executive. "Speed is going to be the difference. Speed is going to make you successful. If you're not fast, you're going to be out of business and XML is one of those technologies that allows you to speed deployment."