UN XML project gets Microsoft support

A United Nations (UN) project that uses XML (Extensible Markup Language) to give small and medium-sized companies an alternative to paper forms when doing business across borders has won support from Microsoft Corp.

The Redmond, Washington, software maker at a UN conference in Geneva on Thursday demonstrated how the product of the XML project called UNeDocs would work in Microsoft's InfoPath application. Details of the prototype InfoPath implementation will be released within 30 days, Microsoft said.

UNeDocs, or United Nations extensions for aligned electronic trade documents, was started in 2002 by the UN's Economic Commission for Europe. The aim is to use XML to create an electronic equivalent for paper trade documents based on existing EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) standards, according to the UNeDocs Web site.

EDI is expensive and use has generally been reserved for large enterprises. XML is going to make electronic exchange of business documents between companies cheaper with tools like InfoPath to support it, said Bobby Moore, product manager for InfoPath at Microsoft.

The UN estimates that paper-based trade procedures cost about 10 percent of the value of exchanged goods. In 2000 that would have been 10 percent of US$5.5 trillion in international trade, according to the UNeDocs Web site.

The UN is drafting the XML electronic trade documents to create documents that can be understood and accepted internationally. Many of the alternatives that have been created by private parties are country or sector-specific, according to the UNeDocs Web site.

In addition to the trade documents, the UNeDocs team also created online services for UNeDocs users. One service allows users to get the latest international trade, currency and country codes, for example. Another service converts a UNeDocs XML document into a document that can be viewed through a standard Web Browser.

InfoPath is a new Microsoft information gathering application that can save data natively in XML. It is part of Microsoft's Office 2003 suite of productivity applications, which is currently in beta and planned to be commercially available in the second half of the year, Microsoft has said.

"UNeDocs is a project to allow business to move into the digital economy," Moore said. "Our support for XML standards in general will be a huge selling point for InfoPath, whether it is UNeDocs or other standards."

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