Financial Services Targeted In Effort To Build Support For XML

Microsoft says support for the Extensible Markup Language will be a key component of its enterprise software for years to come, so the company is working behind the scenes to make sure customers adopt the data-transformation language. One such effort, targeting the financial-services sector, is just starting to see the light of day.

Microsoft, SAP, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and more than 60 additional companies in late July released version 1 of their Extensible Business Reporting Language specification. The spec, called XBRL, defines about 1,600 XML tags that define common ways of representing balance sheets, income statements, cash flows, and other items in financial reports.

Christy Reichhelm, a manager for B2B enterprise applications at Microsoft, says XBRL addresses the problem of generating financial reports when data is housed in various, often incompatible systems. It's a subset of XML, a language for describing data fields in a common manner that travels over the Internet-standard HTTP. Reichhelm says customers can write middleware modules that transform accounting data into XBRL instead of replacing systems right away. "You need to have stopgap steps before you make that kind of investment," she says.

For example, Microsoft has built demonstration software with its Visual Basic for Applications language that pulls data from Edgar Online, a popular Web site that lists companies' financial reports, into Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet app. Built-in support for XBRL in Excel may be forthcoming, Reichhelm adds. Similarly, accounting software vendor Navision Software US Inc. supports XBRL in its application. "We're pitching it to customers as a free benefit," says Navision manager Geni Whitehouse.

Other participants in the XBRL Committee--headed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants--include Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young, Deloitte & Touche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG. Software vendors including PeopleSoft Inc. and Oracle are also involved. Microsoft participates in other groups that work on creating XML definitions for vertical markets, including RosettaNet for the IT industry, and efforts aimed at insurance and taxation.

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