We run into UBL invoices increasingly often nowadays. The UBL invoice: some have named it the successor of the PDF invoice (which “they” see as the successor to the printed version of the invoice). Obviously electronic invoices in the EDIFACT or ANSI X12 format have been around for a long time, and while technologically this thus can be seen as the latest fad, that doesn’t make it less important.

What has changed? Why the sudden increase hype?

Well, the sudden upturn is caused by no less than the EU wanting to cut back on paper. UBL invoices have gotten a mandate from many governments in Europe. Even outside of Europe, on continents as North America and Australia, governments are preparing initiatives to start using UBL invoices.

Why UBL, and why not EDIFACT or ANSI X12?

To answer that we have to look at the technology behind UBL on one side and EDIFACT and ANSI X12 on the other side. The latter were conceived in a time telexes were still used, and getting information across to “the other side” was difficult and costly. It had to be compact, but somehow readable for experts and safeguards were needed when data connections were disconnected, slow or otherwise unstable. Experts defined a compact syntax, with strong definitions of document creation.

Along came the internet, which advanced both data communication stability and availability. Exchanging documents (files) became easy and cheap. By then the EDIFACT/ANSI X12 world had become experts in their game, and wanted to apply their knowledge to the new techniques. However, the supporters of internet technology (and let’s face it: the last group is about a thousand bigger than the “niche” group of EDIFACT/ANSI X12 suppliers!) considered the technology too strict. Internet demanded another approach which enabled the creation of business documents in a flexible way, a “less strict” way. XML peaked around the corner.

XML is defined as “a metalanguage which allows users to define their own customized markup languages, especially in order to display documents on the Internet.” It allows partners to sit around the table, and hammer out the basic structure and content of a message in a couple of minutes.

Flexible: check. Fast: check. Cheap: check. But what about when a company need to exchange documents with a larger number of partners? You don’t want to sit around the table which each and every one, and do a bilateral agreement with all partners?

This is where worlds started to merge. OASIS (nonprofit consortium that drives the development and adoption of open standards for the global information society. Founding partner include Oracle, IBM Microsoft) and UN/CEFACT (the UN funded organization that developed EDIFACT) started cooperating to develop ebXML (electronic business XML). This resulted in the first releases of UBL.

UBL has thus become a best of both worlds, using the last (internet) technology.  For the companies that have invested in EDIFACT/ANSI X12 technology, that hasn’t changed much though: EDIFACT/X12 are very efficient, work well and most companies see no extra benefit to reinvent an already well-functioning wheel. Thus, EDIFACT/X12 remain important tools for business and there is no particular reason for that to change in the foreseeable future.

Back to the upturn of use of UBL invoices in Europe. Directive 2014/55/EU requires all member states to support e-invoicing in public procurement processes as of November 2018. Many countries have already started projects.

If you are a supplier that regularly invoices (semi) government organizations, or you simply want to cut back on the stack of paper that you are currently generating, and you need help to get your project of the road: contact Neksus, and you will get things up and running quickly.