HP quietly begins Web log experiment

Hewlett-Packard Co. has become the latest IT vendor to dip its toes in the wild world of Web logging, or blogging.

Over the last few weeks, a handful of developers in the company’s software development group have quietly begun publishing their regular musings on such technical issues as service-oriented architectures and XML (Extensible Markup Language). But the company is now showing signs of following competitors like Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. and opening up its blogging efforts to a wider range of company employees.

HP’s blog experiment was launched Nov. 8, as a way to better communicate with the technical community, said David Gee, vice president of marketing for HP’s management software organization. “We wanted to foster communication with particular audiences,” he said. “In this case, it’s with the developers and the managers in the technical space.”

The company rolled out the blogs in a very low-profile fashion, Gee said. “We buried it in the developer section by design because we want to get our feet wet.”

Within the next few months, however, Gee expects employees working on a number of different areas to get involved in blogging. “I think the compiler guys, the OS guys, and the Linux guys within HP will use this medium much more aggressively,” he said.

HP comes late to the corporate blogging game. Microsoft began publishing employee blogs on its MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) Web site in January, and Sun followed suit a few months later with the launch of a Web site where any Sun employee can create a public-facing Web log. In April, IBM Corp. opened up part of its DeveloperWorks Web site to a small number of technical bloggers.

Blogging has become a way of reaching audiences that may be unreachable with conventional marketing techniques, said Amy Wohl, president of Wohl Associates, an industry analyst firm based in Narberth, Penn. “This is all about getting to an audience who ordinarily wouldn’t read anything that you put out there,” she said. “They don’t read marketing material.”

Sometimes that audience is reached by making statements that would not normally appear on corporate Web sites. IBM engineer Bill Higgins, for example, recently dissected some widely publicized comments by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, accusing the software giant’s chief executive officer of making “specious” arguments against open source “to bolster Microsoft and spread (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about Open Source.”

HP and Sun are both experimenting with blogs that target less technical audiences as well. Andy Lark, Sun’s vice-president of global communications and marketing, regularly posts his observations on media issues. And the blog of Sun president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz, the most prominent of Sun’s blog sites, has become a must-read for members of the press and analyst community looking for Schwartz’s views on industry events.

Competitors have also taken notice. Schwartz’s Sept. 16 comments on the “death” of HP’s Unix operating system, HP-UX, elicited a Sept. 28 letter from HP’s legal department calling on Sun to retract Schwartz’s comments. Sun’s lawyers responded with a letter of their own, arguing that the contents of Scwhartz’s blog were merely his opinion.

HP is also toying with the idea of executive blogs. Last week, HP Linux vice-president Martin Fink launched a blog of his own, not on the HP.com Web site, but on the Linuxcio.com domain instead. The first post on Fink’s blog was a critique of Sun’s Solaris operating system strategy, something much more controversial than the highly technical musings on the HP.com blogs.

Still, HP’s Gee said the company may move Fink’s blog over to the HP.com Web site. HP executives Nora Denzel, senior vice-president of the company’s software unit, and Gilles Bouchard, the company’s chief information officer and executive vice-president of global operations, may also begin blogs, he said.

While corporate blogs may eventually expand beyond their technical audience and become useful ways of addressing partners and customers, analyst Wohl does not recommend that other companies follow Schwartz’s example and send their senior executives into the fray. This is a bad idea because the frankness needed for effective blogging may ultimately be in conflict with the legal restrictions on statements from executives at publicly traded companies, she said.

“I sometimes think that (Schwartz) goes a little bit too far,” she said. “When you’re talking about your feelings about the computer industry, which your company happens to do business in, then I think it’s very difficult for you to claim, ‘that was only my personal point of view.'”

Regular blogs from company executives may not be squelched by legal liabilities so much as by the fact that the grassroots popularity of the blogging medium may ultimately be undone by overexposure, said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard University, and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

“Every time I look at blogging, I see the seeds within it of CB radio in the 80s,” he said. While the CB radio turned out to be useful for commercial trucking, the idea that it would be ubiquitous turned out to be false. “We look back and say, what were we thinking? We were all like ‘Breaker 1-9′”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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