UBL and the dog in the night-time

February 9, 2016 Jon Bosak


This is the last in a series of articles by Jon Bosak, a member of the Tradeshift Technical Advisory Board, reviewing the newly published International Standard ISO/IEC 19845, also known as the Universal Business Language (UBL). UBL is the standard data format used by Tradeshift.

“Is there any point to which you would draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

                 -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”

In previous articles in this series I’ve briefly discussed the history, contents, and features of the new International Standard ISO/IEC 19845, also known as UBL. In closing, I’d like to share some thoughts on its larger implications.

When significant technical breakthroughs occur, it’s often the things that happen that get the attention, but sometimes it’s the things that don’t happen — like the dog in “Silver Blaze” that didn’t bark in the night — that are the most important, though least recognized. UBL’s vast capabilities and the mere fact of its standardization will no doubt receive the most attention going forward, but its greatest contribution to the future may lie in what it has prevented from happening.

At the turn of the millennium, when UBL was first proposed, it was already widely recognized that there would some day be a single XML vocabulary for electronic commerce, and there were already a number of non-interoperable XML specifications from software vendors and vertical industry consortia competing for the role. The original prime objective of UBL development was to provide a fully functional, royalty-free alternative built and maintained in an open process in order to prevent the emergence of a de facto standard under the control of a single vendor or industry group that would lock users into a proprietary environment in the way that Microsoft’s Word format locked users into its word processing environment. With the approval of ISO/IEC 19845, UBL has accomplished this objective.

It hasn’t been easy, though. UBL development over its entire history has been opposed every step of the way by special interests trying to defend their personal and corporate investments. In 2007, it was revealed that a large software company had actually secured stealth patents on both UBL (by name!) and the generic electronic commerce environment (ebXML) in which it had been designed to fit. Holders of the patents grudgingly waived their rights to enforce any intellectual property claims against users of UBL, but only after a vigorous response from both the United Nations and the OASIS UBL committee. The interests at stake are so large that rear-guard attempts to sabotage UBL development continued for years afterward, with objections filed right up to UBL’s recent publication by ISO and IEC. Fortunately, that fight is over, and the users won.

While preventing monopoly control of electronic business formats is arguably UBL’s greatest contribution, the establishment of a single comprehensive international standard for business documents turns out to have some significant positive aspects as well.

First, the standardization of a proven, pragmatic, royalty-free XML syntax will encourage the proliferation of inexpensive off-the-shelf-software that “natively speaks” UBL and will thus drastically lower the cost of entry for small businesses into the electronic networks used by their larger trading partners. To put it another way, UBL means the end of the expensive one-off software systems that typified the EDI era. It also provides the opportunity to end the debate over standards for business document formats that has discouraged the adoption of new technologies for doing business in the digital age.

UBL not only standardizes XML representations of thousands of common business objects, it also builds upon current practice and decades of work in semantic modeling to produce human-understandable definitions of those terms as well. Translations of those standard definitions into multiple languages will go a long way toward establishing a common vocabulary for business at every level and solving longstanding language problems in cross-border trade.

Possibly the largest impact of a standardized royalty-free data format over the long run will be its creation of an entire computing ecosystem, like the ecosystem that was created by the universal adoption of HTML and HTTP two decades ago. As was the case when I first began working with the web during the development of HTML 2.0, the details of the future in this regard are far from clear to me, but just as back then, the magnitude of the opportunities this will create is unmistakable.

One near-term consequence of UBL adoption is the way it enables the creation of a standards-based federated portal infrastructure in which everyone can play — one in which a supplier on one business network can invoice a customer on a different network, for example. A prime example of such a structure is PEPPOL, which currently allows government agencies across 16 countries to seamlessly interoperate with their suppliers despite a wide variety of different back-end systems. It’s no surprise that the PEPPOL architecture was largely designed by the founders of Tradeshift, who have built a highly successful business model on the concept of a federated system bound together by a common data format — UBL.

Tradeshift’s ability to thrive and innovate in a context that allows multiple alternative entry points foreshadows a near-term future in which a common data format in the public space between enterprises allows multiple competing entities to interact profitably despite their dependence on incompatible back-end processing systems in the private space within each enterprise. It’s a safe bet that this will have a revolutionary impact on the walled cities of today’s supply chain environment. Expect some changes!