Industry Group Hopes to Set Standard for Transferring Data

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A group of at least 22 high-profile firms plans this week to announce Customer Profile Exchange, an open, independent system the technology and data companies expect will become an across-the-board standard for exchanging consumer information.


Compaq Computer Corp., Digital Impact, DoubleClick Inc., Harte-Hanks Inc., IBM Corp., Oracle Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc. are among the founding "working group" members of the organization, also called CPEX. The group wants to set a standard independent of specific vendors or applications for both online and offline data.


As an example of how it might be used, an airline ticket agent taking a flight reservation could theoretically employ the CPEX standard to more easily transfer information on the traveler to partners such as rental car companies or restaurants in the traveler's destination city.


Increasingly, Internet companies band together to set some standard or another, often designed to stabilize industry practices or present a unified policy in the face of criticism from privacy advocates. Sometimes groups do little more than agree on the vocabulary they will to use to describe their industry. But proponents of CPEX say it is more than a mere détente on what words everyone will use.


"Having grammar does not mean you can adequately communicate. It sort of sets up the rules by which you communicate. What you then need is a mechanism of talking back and forth or a transport mechanism," said Matthew Cutler, co-founder and chief e-business intelligence officer at net.Genesis Corp., Cambridge, MA. The e-business software firm was an early working group member. "What we're really doing is defining an end-to-end communication between different types of customer-related applications."


The firms are doing that with XML, a document description language that's more versatile than HTML. The "X" in XML stands for "extensible," meaning information can be added to data sets without damaging the original record. Such information could include consumers' names, addresses or ages, as well as online behavior such as what kinds of banner ads they tend to click. CPEX also is designed to carry along the specific privacy considerations that are attached to each bit of consumer information gathered over time, Cutler said.


"For instance, [suppose] I am an end-user," he said. "I register at your site. And I can say, 'You know what? You can use my name and my address with other companies that you work with. But you cannot use my medical history or my income level.' " CPEX is designed to remember that.


Companies like net.Genesis hope to benefit from the standard by spending less time and money figuring out how to relay their business clients' data from one set of software to the next - currently a considerable effort.


"We tend to hire lots of consultants and professional services people to get those things done," said Brad Husick, vice president of "standards and evangelism" at Vignette Corp., San Mateo, CA, an e-commerce software firm and another early member of the CPEX working group.


CPEX will be hosted by IdeasGroup.org, Washington, a nonprofit formerly known as the Graphic Communications Association that hosts other XML groups. CPEX membership and its work product are free and open, executives said.


Notably absent from the organization's working group are big marketers, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Husick said "many of those companies" have shown interest in participating in CPEX in a "review capacity." An advisory council has been set up for that purpose. Husick did not name any merchants involved.


And what of Microsoft? Cutler said CPEX has approached the software giant, but "it's been a matter of who is the right person inside Microsoft … to talk about these issues." He added, "You're not going to have 500 companies in the working group or you're never going to get anything done."


Other CPEX members include Andromedia Inc., Calico Commerce Inc., Cogit Corp., Engage Technologies, Fujitsu Software Corp., InsWeb Corp., Intuit Inc., Lumeria Inc., MarketSoft Corp., NBC Internet, Net Perceptions, NetGravity and the Sun/Netscape Alliance.
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