Questions persist over HP's Internet strategy

Could Hewlett-Packard Co.'s e-speak software help make break new grounds?

Could Hewlett-Packard Co.'s e-speak software help make break new grounds?

KUALA LUMPUR, 4 July 2000 (MaxisNet) - It was supposed to be the tool to enable a smarter Internet that could practically read your mind.

Car broke down? No worries. The Internet connection in your dashboard would automatically call out to the nearest tow truck operator, have a truck dispatched, and while it was at it, contact the airport where you had been headed to re-book you on a later flight.

By all accounts, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s e-speak software still could help make such a scenario feasible - some day. But more than a year after the company unveiled the groundbreaking product as the key to its own Internet strategy, consumers are still using the Internet the "old fashioned" way - wading through a lot of useless material to find what they need.

And those who have studied or used e-speak say Hewlett-Packard may have made the mistake of over-hyping the product to the public while at the same time under-marketing it to the other high-tech partners it needs on board to get the service to work.

"It's conceivable that it will work," said Dwight Davis, an analyst with the research firm Summit Strategies. "But currently, the technology itself doesn't support that kind of capability. You need to have a critical mass of services out there that are e-speak enabled."

Because e-speak enables intelligent interaction between different Web sites, having it adopted by many Web sites is to some extent a condition for its success.

Take the example of the vehicle that breaks down on the way to the airport. Even if the car itself is e-speak enabled, it could not do much unless it can communicate with nearby tow truck shops. The flight-bound driver could be out of luck unless her car could get though to the airline.

Source code available

To speed the adoption of e-speak, Hewlett-Packard last year departed from its secretive culture and made the e-speak source code available online so that any developer within or outside of the company could use it to build new services.

Rajiv Gupta, general manager of the company's e-Services strategy has hosted several developers conferences including one last week in Boston. Based on turnout, he said the company seems to be building up an active developer community.

"Every developer conference has more questions than the previous one and there is a sense of excitement and participation," said Gupta. "It is not yet pervasive today, but its uptick has surprised me."

In the seven months since the company made the e-speak source code available, it has had 14,000 downloads and 11,000 registered developers. Its Web site lists 63 e-speak partners, including Andersen Consulting, Nokia and Yahoo Inc.

If that sounds like extensive participation, even Gupta concedes that it really is not, given all the high-tech companies and Web sites that stand to be converted.

Now, rather than highlighting the much-cited example of the car, the driver and the tow truck, Gupta points to other e-speak applications that are less sexy.

"I don't want people to be left with the impression that they have to wait for e-speak to be pervasive before they adopt it," said Gupta.

He said that one Internet portal for students has used e-speak to improve interaction between members. Wireless device makers have included e-speak to simplify Internet connections. And B2B, or business-to-business, Internet companies are using it to help a select group of businesses communicate.

When pressed about the car, Gupta says developers have already demonstrated an e-speak service that would kick in in the event of an accident, and somehow, determine whether a tow truck or an ambulance was in order. It is still a way from coming to the market, he cautions.

Competition from Microsoft

In the meantime, there are companies like SpinCircuit Inc., which are working to speed up the design and development of electronics products. SpinCircuit says e-speak is now its core business, helping companies broker services from each other over the Web.

However, it also says that e-speak is not the most user-friendly software.

"One of the biggest challenges we have is understanding it," said Kent Shimasaki, vice president of strategy and marketing at SpinCircuit. "That is a huge challenge in and of itself."

In fact, even many of the most high-tech techies say they have had a hard time grasping how e-speak works, let alone explaining it, which has sometimes hampered its deployment. While better understanding is coming slowly, Hewlett-Packard may not have the luxury of time.

Microsoft Corp. last week unveiled its own "dot-net" strategy, with a mission much like e-speak's, to make it easier to swap information between computing devices.

"They have a jump on Microsoft but that doesn't mean Microsoft can't make up a lot of ground," said Davis, the Summit Strategies analyst.

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