A budding communication language is expected to receive an important vote of support today from Visa International, which plans to introduce a specification it hopes will become a standard for business-to-business electronic commerce.
The technology, known as XML, for eXtensible Markup Language, has not won widespread acceptance but is often touted as the standard that would make it easier for companies to communicate with one another on-line. A number of banks are already using XML in their data-sharing initiatives, but no industry standard has emerged.
Visa hopes to change that.
The San Francisco-based bank card association has developed a standard invoice around XML that businesses can use to track their purchasing and corporate card transactions.
For the past two months it has been testing the Visa Global Invoice Specification with the Thistle Group, a hotel chain in the United Kingdom, and Hertz Europe, and Visa plans to expand the pilot this year in Europe and the United States.
The business-to-business market has been heating up as banks and technology companies try to exploit the enormous opportunity in corporate transactions. GE Capital recently invested $7.5 million in Global Commerce Systems Inc., which specializes in Web business-to-business exchanges.
On Jan. 31 GE Capital announced an on-line management program, GE Business Marketplace, that supports travel, purchasing, and fleet vehicle corporate charge cards. And next week Biztro, a Web company targeting the business-to-business market, is to announce its start-up.
By some estimates the business-to-business market is expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2003. Card companies, however, have some catching up to do.
According to a study done in December by GartnerGroup of Stamford, Conn., only 9% of payments made between companies involve cards. Approximately 70% are made through the Automated Clearinghouse, which is less costly than cards.
"The business-to-business market is where most of the money is going to be made on the Internet," said Avivah Litan, an analyst at GartnerGroup.
Visa recognizes that, to capture a greater share of this market, it must go "beyond the payment process to include the document surrounding the payment," Ms. Litan said. "Companies will be more attracted to using purchasing cards because of these extras."
Visa collaborated with several technology companies that are using XML, including Commerce One, IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc., and ValiCert.com.
Commerce One "was the closest to what we were trying to achieve" with invoices, said Alistair Duncan, vice president of information delivery at Visa International. "We used a lot of the valuable work they had done and we have taken it a lot further than they had."
For now Visa's invoice can track information on procurement transactions as well as spending on airline travel, hotels, and car rentals. It plans to expand the invoice to accommodate other merchant sectors such as health care, maintenance, and fleet services.
Mr. Duncan is in Visa' commercial cards unit, which used to be part of its consumer card division. "Business-to-business is an untapped market," he said. "This is a very important area for Visa."
Mr. Duncan said Visa is working with several international XML governing bodies, including ebXML, to establish it as a standard. The invoice will complete all kinds of transactions, including those involving competing card brands and even checks.
In the meantime, Visa has posted the invoice on its Web site and is seeking comments from the industry.