For once, I am not crying doom and gloom. UK dominance in electronic commerce, which looked for a moment to be threatened by that most destructive of civil wars, between the suits and the anoraks, has been saved by a hair's breadth.
The problem was a culture gap. Ten years ago, a lot of bright procurement executives in several industries, notably retail and automotive, aided and abetted by their trade associations, invented a technology called EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). The idea is to send orders over telephone lines from the procurement packages of Tesco to the order processing system on the PCs of 2,000 suppliers, who might be a multinational like Colgate, or a mushroom grower in Wales, without intervention by human hand.
To do this, it was necessary to invent a commercial language of invoices, orders and so on, for the PCs at either end to understand each other.
For internal trade, the ANA (Article Numbering Association) produced a language called TRADACOMS, and, for international trade, SITPRO, (Simpler Trade Procedures Board), with a little help from the United Nations, created EDIFACT, the first global commercial language since the Tower of Babel.
This was all great stuff, but it was created by users. When the Web came along, hip nerds quickly invented Trading-on-the-Internet, and announced the immediate demise of physical shops, in favour of Virtual Shopping Malls.
They also took one look at TRADACOMS and EDIFACT, and found them balls-achingly boring. The Internetters' instinct was to say that such standards were not necessary, or could be re-invented in a Web-friendly way in a quarter of an hour.
Moreover, they looked at the prices charged by the EDI VANs for their security and audit trails, and reckoned Internet pricing would sweep the VANs out of their way in a few months. So they began to rubbish EDI as an outdated technology.
Conversely, some of the EDI community were reacting in the same dismissive way. According to them, the Web was Mickey-Mouse and could never offer the security and audit-trails of a grown-up VAN.
All this abuse pained me. I see EDI people and Web-traders as all part of the same electronic commerce scene. The only difference is that the Web is the shop-front, whereas EDI is back-office. What is essential is that companies produce seamless electronic commerce systems from consumer through to raw material supplier. We cannot afford EDI and Internet people working out of little boxes.
The Electronic Commerce '96 show at Wembley last month, traditionally an EDI-oriented event, attracted more Internet-based companies than before.
GEIS (General Electric Information Services), the most powerful VAN in the UK, conceded that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and launched an Internet-based service for small customers.
And there is a new buzz word, Form-based EDI, going the rounds. This means that you fill in an order form on the Web, and the form, being structured, is converted into a TRADACOMS or EDIFACT message, which can be used for back office systems down the distribution chain.
In January, the EDIA renamed itself the ECA (Electronic Commerce Association), and has since formed a "Business on the Internet" interest section. This is beginning to attract Internet Service Providers. To my delight, the suits of the EDI world and the anoraks of the Internet world have an urge to merge. The UK is the first country in Europe to get the two sides together, and this should keep us at the top.
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