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XBRL could learn from XML's success - Bray

Controlled approach stalling

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Supporters of extensible business reporting language (XBRL), the proposed standard for electronic filing of financial information, need to learn lessons from the development of the Web if they want to promote it successfully.

Tim Bray, Sun Microsystems' director of Web technologies and one of the original architects of extensible mark-up language (XML), told Register Developer this would be his main message to the XBRL conference in Vancouver this week.

"I am talking as an ambassador from the Web and want to get across that they need to be more like the Web. There is always a danger when developing standards like XBRL that the best becomes the enemy of the good. They should aim for less central control if they want people to use the standard," Bray said.

He went on to say that the real growth of Web services is a pragmatic approach that can help XBRL: "If you take the analogy of Web services there have been two strands of development. One is based on service oriented architecture (SOA), the WS-* stack, in attempt to get a large, elaborate, end-to-end suite of solutions, and - although it is not dead - this approach is stalling.

"The other, more successful approach, is based on putting together high-performance components - a sort of 80-20 approach that does not try to boil the ocean. XBRL ought to be learning from the development of these technologies."

Although not directly involved in developing XBRL, Bray said he spoke with Charles Hoffman, XBRL's originator, and contributed some core ideas based on his experiences in the creation of XML.

Like XML, XBRL provides a method of tagging data so that it can be recognised by any software. It has seen wide acceptance internationally, with Japan and China mandating XBRL and many European countries with advanced plans to do so. The UK is expected to bring in mandatory XBRL reporting by 2010.

But US adoption of XBRL has been slow with only around 50 companies so far taking it up. In the summer Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman Christopher Cox, who has strongly supported XBRL, was forced to defend a pilot project to US senators who wanted to know why so few US companies were using it. It is widely thought the SEC will make XBRL mandatory by the end of 2008, though Cox has said this will depend on the success of the pilot project. Cox will also be speaking at the XBRL conference.

The SEC has invested several million dollars in promoting XBRL and recently released free source code to enable companies to read XBRL tags. Cox also revealed last week that XBRL tags that map the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) will be available for free this week from the SEC.®

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