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Hewlett-Packard finds a new groove

The systems giant appears to be in the right niche at the right time as it saddles up with Lucent and Cisco Systems.

Systems giant Hewlett-Packard appears to be in the right niche at the right time.

Following a cozy pairing with data networking leader Cisco Systems, HP has garnered the interest of another communications behemoth, Lucent Technologies.

HP's plans to integrate a set of its voice services software with Lucent's own carrier tools--a move that on the surface, could be seen as similar to HP's deal with Cisco. Yet HP executives said that the Lucent deal does not extend as far as its work does with Cisco, but echoes previously announced alliances with other communications firms such as Nortel Networks, Ericsson, and Nokia.

The stakes are high for data-oriented players such as Cisco, since they lack the voice expertise of veteran firms such as Lucent and Nortel. Consequently, Cisco's partnership with HP is thought to be extremely important as Cisco expands its strategy to provide equipment to handle voice and data traffic using Internet Protocol, or IP--the transmissions medium for the Net.

As HP sees it, the company's partnership with Cisco covers a wide range of technologies and markets, while the deal with Lucent is specific to integration with HP's own OpenCall software for traditional telephone networks.

Lucent is linking its own software tailored for data-based layouts using IP, allowing services that run on the phone network--such as advanced billing mechanisms--to be extended to the data world, where IP currently lacks the same wide-ranging options for carriers.

"We have had a strategy to work with partners from the beginning," said Pascal Boudalier, product manager for OpenCall.

HP's OpenCall software is currently installed in over 300 networks worldwide, according to internal estimates.

What is driving HP's various partnerships, is the ever-present trend to tie phone networks to data networks in a bid to offload traffic from overloaded voice switches. Looking forward, the technology aims to eventually migrate from older circuit-based layouts, to more efficient networks using data protocols such as IP.

OpenCall provides what some call a "platform" for voice carriers to build particular service applications on--whether it relates to background billing or sophisticated call forwarding mechanisms. Lucent has developed similar software known as a "gatekeeper" for the IP-based data world, through a wholly-owned venture called Elemedia.

"Basically, a consumer can get a similar set of services whether they are on the voice network or the data network" as a result of the integration, said Kalpana Sheth, director of marketing and communications for Elemedia.

Other data players in the industry, such as Ascend Communications, have chosen to gain access to voice services software technology through acquisitions. In August, Ascend bought Stratus Computer, a maker of computer systems and software for the telco industry.

Ascend executives said they too could be interested in integrating with HP's OpenCall software, if necessary. "We're not making any religious decisions," said Rod Randall, vice president of marketing for Ascend's carrier and signaling management division.

Separately, HP's stock fell nearly 10 percent in morning trading after the company announced earnings after the market close yesterday. Wall Street is eyeing the company's prospects warily over the next year, as HP executives see weaker revenue growth for 1999.