On May 1st, UBL 1.0 hit the streets; today, Jon Bosak is in Hong Kong launching the marketing push. UBL is a set of general-purpose XML-encoded business documents: orders, acknowledgments, packing slips, invoices, receipts. I’m not a UBL expert, but I have two good arguments that say it’s likely to be important and successful.

History · UBL is the fifth generation of work in this space, dating back to the original “CBL” in 1998. A lot of work has gone into this, and—this is important—a lot of that work was done by business-people, not computer geeks.

Bosak · I said I had two arguments as to why this is important: The first I’m relaying from Jon Bosak, the second is Jon himself.

Jon’s argument is this: UBL, a fixed set of documents, is immensely less flexible than the grand composable visions of the people building the “WS-* stack.” But We’ve seen this movie before; we tried for years to build hypertexts across the network based on the infinite flexibility of SGML. Tim Berners-Lee ignored that flexibility and trotted out a fixed set of tags that were just good enough to get the job done: HTML. Thus, the Web explosion.

Does the UBL/HTML metaphor hold? I don’t know, but I’m not sure I’d want to bet against it.

Then there’s Jon himself. If you’d decided, as an investment strategy, to back all the technologies Jon has been mixed up in since 1990 or so you’d look like a genius. He was in the tech-doc group at Novell and got the idea that they should deliver the NetWare docs electronically rather than on paper. Result, huge savings, massively better usability. Then, he went to Sun and repeated the trick. Then, he founded and chaired the XML working group. Since 1999 or so, he’s been working on ebXML and UBL.

Just another piece of evidence that this might be highly unsafe to bet against.

I’ve reproduced below an email from Jon about the 1.0 release:

UBL TC members and observers,

   It is my great pleasure to announce that UBL 1.0 has been
   approved as an OASIS Committee Draft by the OASIS Universal
   Business Language Technical Committee and is now available for
   general use.

   The UBL 1.0 Committee Draft is located at


   A compressed archive containing the entire release is available
   for local installation from


   UBL 1.0 represents six years of continuous development in the
   creation of a standard XML business syntax, the last two years
   of which have taken place in the OASIS Universal Business
   Language Technical Committee.  The UBL Committee Draft
   incorporates more than a year of public review, and the final
   result is now ready for implementation in commercial and
   open-source software efforts.  UBL is freely available and may
   be used by anyone without the payment of royalties or other


   Since its approval as a W3C recommendation in 1998, XML has
   been adopted in a number of industries as a framework for the
   definition of the messages exchanged in electronic
   commerce. The widespread use of XML has led to the development
   of multiple industry-specific XML versions of such basic
   documents as purchase orders, shipping notices, and invoices.

   While industry-specific data formats have the advantage of
   maximal optimization for their business context, the existence
   of different formats to accomplish the same purpose in
   different business domains is attended by a number of
   significant disadvantages as well.

    - Developing and maintaining multiple versions of common
      business documents like purchase orders and invoices is a
      major duplication of effort.  

    - Creating and maintaining multiple adapters to enable trading
      relationships across domain boundaries is an even greater

    - The existence of multiple XML formats makes it much harder
      to integrate XML business messages with back-office systems.

    - The need to support an arbitrary number of XML formats makes
      tools more expensive and trained workers harder to find.

   The OASIS Universal Business Language (UBL) is intended to help
   solve these problems by defining a generic XML interchange
   format for business documents that can be extended to meet the
   requirements of particular industries. Specifically, UBL 1.0
   provides the following:

    - A library of XML schemas for reusable data components such
      as "Address," "Item," and "Payment" -- the common data
      elements of everyday business documents.

    - A small set of XML schemas for common business documents
      such as "Order," "Despatch Advice," and "Invoice" that are
      constructed from the UBL library components and can be used
      in a generic order-to-invoice trading context.

    - Support for the customization of UBL in specific trading

   A standard basis for XML business schemas is expected to have
   the following advantages:

    - Lower cost of integration, both among and within
      enterprises, through the reuse of common data structures.

    - Lower cost of commercial software, because software written
      to process a given XML tag set is much easier to develop
      than software that can handle an unlimited number of tag

    - An easier learning curve, because users need master just a
      single library.

    - Lower cost of entry and therefore quicker adoption by small
      and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

    - Standardized training, resulting in many skilled workers.

    - A universally available pool of system integrators.

    - Standardized, inexpensive data input and output tools.

   UBL is designed to provide a universally understood and
   recognized commercial syntax for legally binding business
   documents and to operate within a standard business framework
   such as ISO 15000 (ebXML) to provide a complete,
   standards-based infrastructure that can extend the benefits of
   existing EDI systems to businesses of all sizes. UBL is freely
   available to everyone without legal encumbrance or licensing

   UBL schemas are modular, reusable, and extensible in XML-aware
   ways. Designed as an implementation of ebXML Core Components
   Technical Specification 2.01, the UBL Library is based on a
   conceptual model of information components known as Business
   Information Entities (BIEs). These components are assembled
   into specific document models such as Order and Invoice. These
   document assembly models are then transformed in accordance
   with UBL Naming and Design Rules into W3C XSD schema
   syntax. This approach facilitates the creation of UBL-based
   document types beyond those specified in this 1.0 release. The
   UBL 1.0 specification describes the basic order-to-invoice
   business process that the UBL document types are designed to

   To aid in deployment, the standard UBL schemas are accompanied
   by a multitude of informative supporting materials, some of
   which are included in the UBL 1.0 package as informative
   appendices and some of which are available from referenced
   sites. These materials include:

    - UML class diagrams of the document components on which the
      schemas are based.

    - UML class diagrams describing all the document assemblies.

    - Spreadsheet models defining the document assemblies.

    - Descriptions of two example implementations.

    - Sample instances of each of the UBL documents used in those
      two implementations.

    - Formatting specifications for rendering all of the documents
      in the example use cases.

    - Formatting specifications for the United Nations Layout Keys
      corresponding to each of the UBL basic business document

    - An ASN.1 specification to enable the transmission of UBL
      messages in binary form.


   To promote international adoption, OASIS UBL localization
   subcommittees have been formed to translate the UBL
   specification into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish.
   When complete, this localization work will make UBL readily
   usable for more than two-thirds of the current global online

   The next UBL TC meeting, to be hosted by Hong Kong University
   10-14 May 2004, will set the work schedule for UBL
   localization, continue to further refine the technical basis of
   UBL, and begin to develop a process for the creation of
   industry-specific UBL profiles.  A detailed agenda for the
   meeting in Hong Kong can be found at


   Persons wishing to attend upcoming UBL TC meetings should
   contact the UBL TC chair, Jon Bosak (jon.bosak@sun.com) and UBL
   TC vice chair, Mark Crawford (mcrawford@lmi.org).


   For further information regarding UBL, see the OASIS UBL TC web
   page at


   A free public mail list for the discussion of UBL is available
   for subscription through the OASIS mail manager at


   The ubl-dev archive is located at


   To join the UBL TC or propose the formation of a new UBL
   localization subcommittee, contact the chair at the address

Jon Bosak
Distinguished Engineer, Sun Microsystems
Chair, OASIS Universal Business Language Technical Committee

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