“In the Long Term, E-Commerce Will Only Survive Through Internationally Harmonized Product Descriptions”

Holger Kett
Holger Kett

Electronic product catalogs are a vehicle for e-commerce. Why is it becoming increasingly important to standardize these catalogs when e-commerce is continuing to grow worldwide – this year, sales in electronic media rose to approximately Euro 1.7 trillion (2.3 trillion US Dollars)?

Kett: With the global rise in e-commerce expected over the next few years online providers are increasingly having to use globally applicable formats for exchanging product data. It will be more straightforward and cost-effective for them to use internationally harmonized standards than for each of them individually to adapt the large numbers of standards currently in use so that they can be used for data exchange with business partners in several languages.

Shared standards simplify the exchange of classified product data between different platforms, guarantee interoperability between the systems and therefore form the basis of successful e-commerce. To ensure smooth exchange, standardization must be implemented in a number of areas – the identification of companies and products, product classification and the catalogs themselves. Many of the standards currently used are actually meant for national or regional use. Electronic trade, globally oriented by definition, can only succeed, however, when the key elements such as product descriptions, classifications and user interfaces are multilingual, multinational and based on internationally agreed standards.

What does this mean for companies that produce product catalogs?

Kett: Internationally harmonized standards decrease the outlay required to coordinate and adapt interfaces for exchanging electronic product data, because companies can simply use the specifications of the standard. This will have a positive long-term effect on the cost of electronic catalogs. Above all, a development like this offers SMBs the chance to expand their international business partnerships.

Unicode can be used to display the characters of all the languages in the world. Is it enough for a catalog system to be Unicode-compatible in order to produce multilingual catalogs? What other properties does it need?

Kett: No, it is not enough just to be Unicode-compatible. IT systems for creating and using electronic product catalogs do need to be able to map the characters of the different languages using Unicode, but they also need to represent texts in a country-specific way. In other words they need to take into account different directions of text flow, hyphenation and page make-up. English text is written and read from left to right, Arabic from right to left and Chinese from top to bottom. A good product data management system for creating multilingual electronic product catalogs should be able to do the following: Manage product data and catalogs in several languages, process product classifications in several language versions and support popular international catalog formats and classifications as well as standardized terminology. Ideally, it would also map translation workflows or support interfaces to popular translation solutions. Language-specific user profiles should enable users to store a main language with other languages alongside, in which language-specific multimedia data such as images and videos can be displayed. For example, Dutch users would set their native language as their first and English and German as their other languages so that they could view multimedia data in the second or third language if it is not available in Dutch.

What are the current problems with electronic catalog standards?

Kett: Today’s standards do not provide enough support for mapping more complex, configurable products and services. This will become more and more important in future, as will the mapping of country-specific requirements or complex price models. For example, products in Germany that depend essentially on the day-to-day price of metal, are offered at prices that reflect the latest metal price. Electronic product catalogs should therefore be able to map dynamic prices.

Who is actively involved in eCAT?

Kett: International standardization bodies, businesses, chambers of commerce and research institutes from all over Europe, the Uniform Code Council (UNSPSC) headquartered in the USA, Standards South Africa (Liaison) and the China National Institute of Standardisation. Membership of the workshop is free. Applications can be made electronically at the CEN.

Do you coordinate your work with international standardization initiatives such as ebXML?

Kett: Yes, the eCAT workshop for harmonizing existing standards also takes into account well-known standardization initiatives such as ebXML. The workshop brings together representatives from different initiatives in the field of electronic product catalogs who meet regularly to exchange information.

Do catalogs in more complex languages such as Chinese or Arabic also benefit from the recommendations of eCAT?

Kett: Standards for defining catalog formats are largely language independent, as the important thing here is catalog structures rather than content. It’s different with product classifications, however, where product classes and their associated product features are defined. Take, for instance, the product class “drills”, which includes the features “length”, “diameter” and “material”. These terms are largely language dependent. Shared terminology therefore simplifies working with descriptions and classifications in different languages. That’s why Asian initiatives such as the Japanese East Asia Electronic Commerce Association (EA-ECA) play an active role in the workshop, alongside many others.

In the study conducted by the Fraunhofer IAO, most of the companies surveyed were SMBs. Do large companies have less interest in selling products using electronic catalogs?

Kett: On the contrary, the interest shown by large companies in electronic catalogs is as great as ever, and the demands on product management are still increasing due to international expansion strategies. However, one of the main concerns of the study was to investigate the interests of SMBs. Up till now, English product catalogs have been predominant. However, the results of the survey show that more and more SMBs are looking to expand internationally and want to offer their product data in a number of languages. This will increase the sphere of activity for providers of catalog software. Companies that offer language-specific product catalogs will stand out from the crowd and stay one step ahead of their competitors. If the production of multilingual product catalogs becomes easier, companies will also take advantage of the opportunity to offer their products in more languages.

Why then this relatively unadventurous tendency among the companies surveyed where languages are concerned?

Kett: The results of the survey reflect the status of customer demand and the prospects for turning investments in product catalogs into sales quickly. Only when the demand for electronic catalogs in a new language promises large sales volumes and the new language version is not too expensive for the company, will it be ready to produce its electronic catalogs in that language.

Are Western European companies not yet interested enough in customers in Eastern Europe, China or the Middle East?

Kett: Of course they are, but online providers first need electronic procurement systems or sales platforms on which to set up electronic product catalogs. Above all, e-procurement systems are not yet so widespread in China or Eastern Europe as they are in the West. For the current level of demand, product catalogs in a European language such as English or German are evidently sufficient. In the long term, however, e-commerce will only survive with internationally harmonized product descriptions. That’s why the eCAT workshop is committed to coordinating its work with that of Asian initiatives in order to promote the benefits of product catalogs in Asian languages.

When do you expect standardized guidelines for producing multilingual product catalogs to be formulated?

Kett: A project entitled “Global Multilingual Product Description and Classification for eCommerce and eBusiness” (ePDC) was initiated as part of the eCAT workshop with the aim of making recommendations for a shared architecture for technical dictionaries and for harmonized terminology (terms and definitions). The results of the project are to be published in 2005.