By using XML as the format for BizTalk, Microsoft may indeed make EDI possible for all businesses. "BizTalk is about Microsoft bringing together customers, standards bodies and software writers to define the right standards and schemas for XML-based data and process integration," says Rebekkah Kumar, a product manager at Microsoft. "What this means for small businesses is that there will be a standard way to define how to communicate that the industry will rally around, and the ability for them to play will be that much easier."
While Microsoft could not confirm at press time how much it would cost to implement BizTalk, analysts say a BizTalk-enabled Internet Commerce Server from Microsoft should cost entrepreneurs about $10,000, plus the cost of integration services offered by a local Microsoft Certified Solutions Provider. A list of these certified providers can be found on Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/industry). A comparable EDI system costs about $15,000.
In addition, Microsoft hopes manufacturers of other operating systems, such as UNIX and Macintosh, will create tools that will be BizTalk-enabled as well. Other BizTalk-enabled products from Microsoft are expected out later this year.
"Microsoft is basically pushing XML into applications that are inexpensive enough for small businesses to own or operate," says Scott Smith, president of Tera Group LLC, an electronic-business consulting firm in McLean, Virginia. "If you're a small-business owner, ultimately you want all your trading partners to implement it. The more of your trading partners that have XML, the more valuable the investment is to you." In the future, EDI systems should be able to work with XML, but it's too soon to determine when that will be.
Microsoft's BizTalk vision currently includes partnerships with large XML vendors, which will allow smaller companies to communicate with these suppliers' larger systems in real time. For example, webMethods, a Fairfax, Virginia, manufacturer of large XML-based integration servers for major companies, announced a partnership with Microsoft and BizTalk; this will allow businesses that use BizTalk to easily communicate with webMethods' servers.
"A good example of this is Dun and Bradstreet," says Phillip Merrick, president and CEO of webMethods Inc. "Now small companies using BizTalk can get access to D&B's credit information in real time, even if they're running on webMethods' system."
Coastal's Mogren says if XML-based integration becomes widespread, the possibilities for enhancing business communications are numerous. He foresees a situation where if Coastal doesn't offer a product a customer requests, the request could be passed through Coastal's server to query the manufacturer's XML-enabled Web site. All these transactions, including getting word back to the customer about the product, could take just a few seconds.
"If the customer wants to proceed [with the purchase], then the Web site can create the correct document, transmit it in real time to the manufacturer, and get a response back about when it will ship," says Mogren. "The possibilities are endless."
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at email@example.com.