School business managers and technology coordinators might routinely take bids for services directly over the internet in the not-too-distant future, thanks to a new technology developed by Hewlett-Packard. Called “eSpeak,” the technology is designed to allow web sites to communicate instantly with each other and competitively bid to deliver goods and services.

Schools, and any other users, would simply put out a request on the internet and would automatically receive the best results. If widely adopted, the technology could transform the way business is conducted, according to eSpeak’s chief technologist, Rajiv Gupta.

“eSpeak is intended to reduce barriers and make it easy, cost-effective, and quick for people to do business over the internet,” Gupta said. “This is the logical next step of the web, to go from a publishing to a service medium. eSpeak will do for services what the web did for data: Make them easily accessible for everyone.”

Like Java, eSpeak is a programming code built from hypertext mark-up language (HTML) so it can be read by any browser. Software applications developed with eSpeak would take a high-level service request, negotiate with service providers who have registered their services according to a “uniform service interface,” and return information on the best options to the user.

The process would be similar to the communication that takes place between a browser and a web server, Gupta said. A browser takes a user’s request for an internet site, communicates with the web server, and returns the site to the user.

On-the-fly data

In describing how the technology works, Gupta used the example of a passenger requesting travel arrangements from one city to another. Travel is a high-level request composed of multiple elements such as air fare and hotel accommodations, he said. Within each element, there are multiple providers.

Using today’s internet, you’d have to go to ten or twelve different web sites yourself to check out prices, compare features, solicit bids, and make final arrangements, Gupta said. And there’s no real way of knowing if any of the details have changed in the interim without going back to visit the sites.

With eSpeak, you’d specify your preferences in a user profile (window seat, business flight, etc.), and the technology would break down each element of your request, keep track of who the various service providers are, request bids from each provider, and return the best bids to you according to your chosen criteria.

“With 6,500 new web sites coming onto the internet every hour, that makes it frustrating and time-consuming for consumers to figure out who can offer the best deal,” he said. In contrast, eSpeak would bring the service providers directly to the user to compete for the user’s different services.

School purchasing agents soon might be able to solicit bids online for anything from food services to technology products using eSpeak, Gupta said: “While today, you’re limited by the 10 people your business manager knows, soon you’ll be limited (only) by the hundreds of thousands of companies that want your business.”

High tide

Hewlett-Packard is making its eSpeak technology available to developers at no cost. The company hopes to profit by selling the web servers and other new products and services that will drive it.

But for eSpeak to transform business, the technology must be widely adopted by developers and web publishers.

“These are still the early days–there are no products, not even (a software developer’s kit),” said Paul McGuckin, an analyst with the Gartner Group. “There is a technology, and it does appear to be a good set of services, but they still have a number of barriers.”

For one thing, HP must continue to recruit high-profile partners. Already, pilot programs and endorsements for eSpeak have come from the likes of Anderson Consulting, Noika, Novell, Oracle, PeopleSoft, and Seagate Technology. Notably absent so far, however, has been Microsoft, which reportedly is working on a similar project.

“HP would love to have Microsoft anoint this, but they won’t,” McGuckin said. “This is way too big a space to let HP own it.”

Still, Gupta predicts the technology will reach critical mass in just two years. “This is the tide that is going to raise all the boats,” he said.

Hewlett-Packard

http://www.hp.com

Gartner Group

http://www.gartner-group.com

Microsoft Corp.

http://www.microsoft.com