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Blog's the word in big business

Corporate giants like Microsoft are latching on to Web logs as the hottest new enterprise tool.

BERKELEY, Calif.--Long heralded as a way for the masses to wrest the Internet back from corporate control, the Web log has emerged as the hottest new enterprise tool.

That's a key message emerging from BlogOn 2004, "The Business of Social Media," a two-day conference at the University of California's Haas School of Business here, where blog software providers, evangelists, engineers and others are exploring the disruptive and fertile landscape of online diaries both corporate and personal.

For many touting the blog's usefulness to the enterprise, Microsoft is Exhibit A.

"Microsoft is not thought of instantly when it comes to transparency and openness," acknowledged Lenn Pryor, Microsoft's director of platform evangelism. Blogging is "a way to scale our ability to communicate with customers in an open and honest way."

Microsoft and its legions of public relations employees and contractors are famous for their efforts to control the company's message. With the advent of the blog, however, Microsoft's corporate communications have become vastly more decentralized, Pryor said, with about 1,000 Microsoft employees maintaining largely unregulated Web logs.

Microsoft this spring launched a blog service for developers called "Channel 9," named for the audio channel that lets airline passengers listen in on communications between pilots and air traffic control.

Pryor compared a Microsoft customer's experience to that of an airline passenger and said the ability to overhear the inner workings of the operation could allay anxiety.

"That's how our customers feel," Pryor said. "They're trapped at 40,000 feet going 600 miles per hour in a metal tube."

Since its launch in April, Microsoft's site has attracted 700,000 individual users. The site collects blogs by Microsoft employees and allows visitors to post entries and ask and answer questions.

Appearing on a panel with Microsoft were the founders of the blogging software vendor Six Apart, who told their own tale of corporate transparency through blogs.

After announcing an unpopular price and licensing shift, the executives found themselves pilloried by bloggers on their own site.

"Overnight we became more evil than Microsoft," recalled Six Apart President Mena Trott. "We became the Microsoft of the blogging world, so it's nice to be on a panel with Microsoft."

One longtime blogging figure, also with Six Apart, said the sold-out conference indicated the medium's arrival for the enterprise.

"Two years ago I wouldn't have imagined an event with 'blog' in the title," said Anil Dash, a Six Apart vice president. "It's a real sign of maturity, a sign that blogs are a real business tool."

The corporate utility of blogs, perhaps paradoxically, is in making businesses seem less corporate and giving them a human face, Dash said.

He acknowledged, however, that blogs have a long way to go before they break out of the comparatively small tech-savvy universe represented by conference attendees.

"There's that other 95 percent of people we have to get to," Dash said. "And a lot of people here are going to help get the message out."