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HP keeps social tools behind closed doors

Hewlett-Packard is proud of its old-fashioned approach to product development, support, and sales. But brainpower and work of Social Computing Lab are being underutilized.

I sat in on a group breakfast with HP Labs' Bernardo Huberman last week. He's the director of the Social Computing Lab. The press function was called so HP could tell us how the company is using modern social-networking tools to enhance its business.

Modern tools, that is, for 2005.

While Huberman has done innovative research showing how novelty and popularity interact on social sites (PDF) such as Digg and Facebook, the impact of this research on HP is notably old-fashioned.

First, we learned, HP uses algorithms derived from its research to juggle the product offerings presented to buyers on HP's commerce sites at checkout. Second, we were told of an internal HP app called Watercooler, which monitors HP employees' blogs (not blogs outside of HP) and presents the "zeitgeist" of what's happening on them to people inside HP.

HP could do more with Bernardo Huberman Rafe Needleman/CNET

What amazed me was how little of Huberman's brainpower was being applied to the real world of social media. I asked if any of these social tools were being used to engage HP's customers at a level beyond transactions or beyond HP's firewall--if, for example, the company was helping customers share knowledge with each other.

No, not yet. Everything is still running through knowledge gate keepers within HP, to be doled out, it appears, via sales pitches and service contracts.

Meanwhile, Dell is using a Digg-like service, Ideastorm, to collect the wishes of its customers. Lenovo runs a surprisingly transparent blog about its PCs and laptops, with a small but devoted readership of ThinkPad fanboys. Comcast has a guy monitoring Twitter who will step in and problem-solve, if you start to kvetch in public about your service.

At least HP isn't Apple-like in imposing restrictions on the flow of information between its most involved users and developers.

HP is not doing badly as a technology company right now. It has dominant positions in PC and printer market share, and it is releasing interesting and experimental home PCs, servers, televisions, and mobile phones.

If I were an HP shareholder or a blind consumer of HP products, I wouldn't be disappointed. But I left the meeting worried about the company nonetheless. Instead of just mining its customers for ideas and revenue, HP could be turning some of them into loyal fans. I don't know why it is not.