HP's E-Speak: Good Products, Botched Marketing

It held so much promise. A year ago, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HWP) unveiled what it called ''Chapter II of the Internet.'' No longer would the Web be a hunt-and-peck kind of place. Rather, useful services would be easy to find and combine as unrelated Web sites communicated with each other. The magic would be provided by e-speak--a ''universal language for e-services on the Net,'' HP vice-president Ann Livermore boasted to a throng of reporters, customers, and partners.

For all the bravado, today, e-speak barely registers on the radar screen. What went wrong? Call it a communication problem. HP never adequately explained what e-speak could do and why anyone would need it. Software developers who work with e-speak say it's terrific--the kind of technology they need to improve their Web sites and software. But even they say they've had a tough time understanding what it is. ''To be honest, I had heard of e-speak, but until I started working with it, I couldn't have said for certain what it was,'' says Corey Mandell, chief technology officer at Captura Software, a Bothell (Wash.) provider of financial software as an online service. Today, he swears by e-speak and is making it the core of his Web offering.

TOUGH SELL. Therein may lie a lesson for Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), which on June 22 planned to debut a similarly complex initiative dubbed ''.Net.'' Although the nitty-gritty computer code is different, the two companies are trying to do the same thing: enable different Web sites to communicate with one another so that using the Net gets easier and more useful. Admittedly, e-speak is a tough sell. ''The problem is, e-speak is just not something you can easily pigeonhole,'' says Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc.

HP hasn't made things easier. Where did Captura's Mandell hear about e-speak? Not from HP. Mandell was on a plane coming back from Silicon Valley when the man sitting next to him told him about it. ''If HP sold sushi, they would market it as the very best cold, dead fish in the world,'' says Darwin Melnyk, chief technology officer and founder of Consonus Inc., an Internet service provider in Portland, Ore.

At the heart of both e-speak and .Net is a programming standard called Extensible Markup Language, or XML. This lets companies identify elements on Web pages such as prices, quantities, color, size, or anything else two Web-site developers can agree on. That enables computers to communicate and sort through the millions of offerings on the Web.

While Microsoft talks about enabling services such as online reservations, HP is aiming at a more technical level. E-speak, says Rajiv Gupta, who spearheads the initiative at HP, helps computers talk to one another about the details of transactions. While Microsoft has outlined a grand vision for .Net, HP leaves the dreaming to others and simply supplies the tools to make it happen.

GLUE NEEDED. Best of all, it's free. E-speak is to HP what the Java programming language is to Sun Microsystems Inc.--not a financial barn-burner but a great way to put the company in the middle of the e-business action. ''You can't hold on to customers or partners anymore just with hardware. You need some sort of glue,'' says Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Group Inc. in Boston.

E-speak is supposed to be that glue. And despite the tough sell and botched marketing, it appears to be catching on--albeit slowly. More than 60 companies, including heavyweights such as SAP (SAP) and PeopleSoft Inc. (PSFT), are working with e-speak, according to HP. And Gupta claims that more than 13,000 developers have downloaded the program. But in the software industry, that's not much compared with, say, the 1.3 million developers who work with Java. ''I have not had a single client ask me about it,'' says Carl Lehmann of technology consulting firm META Group Inc.

If e-speak is going to catch up with those numbers, HP had better learn how to explain itself. Then maybe, it will really have reason to boast.

By Jim Kerstetter, with Peter Burrows, in San Mateo, Calif.

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HP's E-Speak: Good Products, Botched Marketing

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