E-speak may enable a pure market on the Web: Earle

Interview with Nick Earle

Hewlett-Packard Co. is going through many changes, not the least of which is the recently-announced E-services strategy for the future of commerce on the Web. HP envisions a world of personalized Web portals communicating with each other on the end user’s behalf, which would then deliver tailored information with minimal user intervention.

This will be accomplished, in part, by the company’s ambitious new universal language for the Internet, called E-speak, which HP hopes will take off as a new on-line standard. E-speak is middleware which dynamically communicates with other E-speak-enabled sites.

ComputerWorld Canada senior writer Gail Balfour recently had the opportunity to speak with Nick Earle, HP’s senior vice-president and chief marketing officer of enterprise computing, based in Cupertino, Calif., about what he anticipates for the future of Web-based interactions.

CWC:HP’s E-Services concept of portals talking to other portals is dependent on many companies embracing this type of communication, isn’t it?

Earle: Yes – I’ll use Ariba.com as an example. Let’s say a customer buys from 5,000 suppliers. What they don’t do is buy from 5,000 Web sites — the customer goes into the purchasing module of SAP, which interfaces with Ariba. And what Ariba has done, up until now, is have an EDI link. But now what Ariba wants to do is connect over the Internet to Ariba.com, which is a purchasing portal.

CWC:How is this different?

Earle: The difference is that you then get more and more companies using Ariba.com. And so far, they’ve signed agreements for US$65 billion worth of corporate purchasing. So now you have the world’s largest Internet commerce site. Here you have a purchasing portal which is attracting people like a black hole — they’ll get you the lowest prices on everything, because the more people that use it the more power they’ve got.

CWC:How does E-speak fit into this?

Earle: Let’s say you are a consulting company with a database full of consultants that changes every hour depending on the bookings. We allow you to ‘E-speak-enable your service’ which means basically you put a little software layer around it. [Anyone] can search a set of parameters, and what could happen is what an economist would call a pure market, [in which] any time anyone wants to buy anything that I have, I’m going to be told.

CWC:How would the software go about notifying you?

Earle: I could set up the program so that if the volume of the order is greater than 10,000, it contacts the PDA or pager of the CFO of my company, because he or she may want to bid a very low price. And what happens is the decision of whether to buy may actually not ever be taken by [the consumer], it could have been taken by the application – the application could have made the choice.

CWC:A pure market is implied on the merchant side but what about the buyers’ side? If they may not even be aware of what’s going on, will this remove too much choice from the consumer?

Earle: Yes, it could, but it depends on how you want to implement it. I’m guessing that if you are in the business of buying 5,000 bottles of cleaner, you’d be quite happy (with the application’s decision). But if you were buying (the services of ) consultants, then you would absolutely want to care. So you can configure E-speak so that you have choices. You can have a service that finds things that are out there.

CWC:But it finds them from a finite group of pre-defined choices, doesn’t it?

Earle: Yes, only from those people who registered. But if E-speak takes off …

CWC:I guess that’s the big question then.

Earle: Yeah that’s the question, is it going to take off? Because if it takes off the world will use it, because otherwise they won’t be getting any business.

CWC:What about what the competition is doing?

Earle: We don’t think that ours will be the only technology (enabling this). We think that Sun will move Jini in this direction. But this is an open technology; Jini only talks to Jini. With E-speak, if the PDA was a Jini device and the pager was a Microsoft device, E-speak wouldn’t care – it’s an open standard.

CWC:What will this technology do to the marketing and advertising industries on the Web? Will they eventually be rendered obsolete?

Earle: That’s a good question, is there really any need (for them) anymore? Because if it’s a pure market, applications are going to choose you. But if you think about it, this will never become a completely pure market. There’s going to be some criteria that’s

not so much to advertising, but what I call brand equity.

I do think advertising will change; I don’t think you will see pop-up ads on these brokered sites – those ads annoy the hell out of people.

CWC:In what direction do you see it changing?

Earle: I think what you are going to see is some of the services that get beamed in will have advertisements in them. The model for advertising could move more to the broadcast model, which is content, and then ad, and then content. That’s why we’ve done a deal with BroadVision. We’ve got a US$35 million investment for dynamic content based on user behaviour.

CWC:User profiles are a big part of this. Do you think privacy is dead?

Earle: Wow, what a question. I think that the industry has still got big issues to address in this area. Speaking from a personal perspective, coming from the UK to the U.S., I am amazed how little privacy there is in the U.S. It would be classified as intrusion of privacy in the UK, what happens over here.

I don’t think the government can solve it, though, so I don’t think that legislation is the answer. But I do believe that there will be a service that will offer you privacy…that will basically screen out unwarranted approaches to you. It’s a big issue, with no easy answer.

CWC:Will the availability of E-Services lead to more outsourcing in organizations?

Earle: Yes, absolutely. Just in the way you don’t run your own generators or dig your own wells. People used to laugh when we said, “You won’t dig your own wells, so why would you own your own computer?” What kind of crazy computer company [would say that]? But the point everyone missed is that somebody else is going to own a lot more computers. So as the generators moved to the power companies, the computers are moving to the telcom companies, or the ISVs that create the portals.

So, yeah, I think there will be less infrastructure, more outsourcing of non-strategic applications, and more companies that exist that are more of a brand (than anything else).

CWC:It seems as soon as a standard is made available, vendors all rush to come out with their own versions of it. Do you anticipate this happening with E-speak?

Earle: Yes and no. No, because we have taken the approach of open standards. There isn’t a single standard that is out there that we are aware of that we can’t work with. But it does depend on the services being launched. If people launch services that only work with certain technologies, then their services will clearly only be available to certain people.

So, will [E-speak] stay perfect in the future? Well, our technology will stay open, but the computer industry does have a history of dividing into camps. But whatever happens, this is a significant step forward from what is possible today.