Around 18 months ago I got all excited about the OAccounts initiative that Martin Kleppman started that conceptualized a standard data format for accounting applications. As I said at the time;

I see it as a fantastic idea and one that will really help to give SaaS in general, and business applications in particular, more traction.

Unfortunately (for OAccounts at least) Martin went off and started another company – this time Rapportive, a great little social CRM tool that works as an add-on to Gmail. OAccounts work stopped and we’ve spent a year or so waiting to see what would step in to make data interchange between SMB applications viable.

Well today Rod Drury, CEO of Xero posted about an initiative they’re supporting called SimpleUBL, a lightweight specification of the much more complex OASIS UBL specification. Xero has set up an industry website to allow vendors to:

…navigate through the UBL specification, starting with invoices, and to collaboratively define the minimum invoicing standard we should support.

When I first posted about OAccounts, Dennis Howlett was a little bit cautious about the chances saying that:

Time and again, the software industry has shown itself incapable of finding standards on issues that make interoperability a reality. We’ve been talking about XBRL for years and only now is it showing signs of life.

Personally I believe we’re in a different situation today – my extensive conversations with a number of different vendors (see disclosure page) leads me to believe that even the most traditional of them realize that the time is absolutely ripe for an initiative like this. It’s not going to be an easy road however. In discussing SimpleUBL with Ian Sweeney, CEO of billFLO a company I’m an advisor to (more on them here), Sweeney told me that:

I really hope it works and we’ll support it if our existing partners get behind it. But a different approach is needed if it’s to be successful. The format has to be very simple (it already looks too complex), it should be developed by the the Small Business Web or equivalent (rather than a standards org) AND it should be implementable in 1 day. Otherwise I fear the cost will outweigh the perceived benefit.

altI’d agree that it’d be a mistake to have a standards body develop the approach, and potential the Small Business Web, an affiliation of SMB SaaS vendors, couple be the best vehicle for developing this, but key here is going to be convincing the big accounting players – MYOB, Intuit and Sage – that an initiative like this is a good thing and worth getting behind. The endorsement of one of those organizations would go a long way to seeing SimpleUBL really eventuate into something more than a nice concept.
So there’s the challenge – I’ll be sending information about SimpleUBL to my contacts at the big vendors, let’s see if they’re up for the challenge.
Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

  • Ben, Dennis is right with his XBRL example although his reasons probably are different from mine

    Anything Oasis (and for that matter, W3C) does is likely to be a tech effort driven by an inside-in tech committee. When we talk lingua franca, we talk business, and semantics, not syntax

    Take for instance: that will pose lots of questions to everyone but the maker itself? XBRL is an utter failure, and will always remain so, because it’s full of syntax, and not a word of semantics. XSD’s, BasicComponents, AggregateComponents, and more silly tech talk like that: useless

    There’s a round wheel already to be found in EDIFACT and X12, and many other industry specific languages such HL7, Swift, etc

    There’s no need for XML in machine-to-machine interchange. XML is bloated, overly complex, heavyweight, and it doesn’t add anything that isn’t possible already in any other language

    SimpleUBL will fail miserable – you can bet my life on it

    • Martijn… so you’re obviously a little undecided on this one! 😉

      Truth is we need something to lubricate the interchange, simpleUBL seems like an ok approach. Watch this space i guess…

      • You’re a funny guy Ben… contains my aversion on XML, which basically is an aversion towards throwing tech solutions at biz problems

        Integration isn’t a problem, and never has been. But is has been turned into a complicated mess during the past 5 years

        I might do something on that, I’m starting my own business per Nov 1st. As this obviously seems to be such a great problem, I’m sure I can make millions on it by just picking my nose – sounds highly boring but might allow for room to do more interesting and challenging stuff

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