The move addresses one of the most common complaints at corporations: the inability to do long-range technology planning because of a lack of information.
The Houston-based PC manufacturer is betting that by giving customers access to future product road maps, it can help ensure they will stay with Compaq products.
But the service is also a risk for Compaq. Customers could use the information to do comparative shopping or could leak future product plans to rival PC makers, said industry observers.
"It scares me just to think about what customers could do with that information and who might get it," said a source at another PC maker, who asked not to be identified.
Compaq is offering the service as an extension of its existing Change Control and Change Notification program. The service provides Compaq's largest customers with what it calls global accounts, which provide 60 days advance notice of changes affecting their systems, such as driver updates and other software enhancements.
The new program goes much further, giving customers hard product information on forthcoming PC models or processor upgrades and other changes to existing systems up to six months in advance of their availability.
Larger customers typically try to minimize management headaches by introducing few system changes, which can be a nuisance and an enormous expense when involving thousands of computer users. Advanced access to PC plans means large customers can plan ahead and minimize the impact on operations.
PC manufacturers typically generate product road maps about twice a year for their customers, briefing them on a one-to-one basis.
"By the time you get to the third or fourth customer, that presentation is stale already because you're back making changes based on feedback," said Ed Reynolds, Compaq's director of solutions marketing.
By making the information available via the Net, Compaq hopes to get the information out to customers faster and ensure that it is up to date.
Compaq isn't the first company offering this kind of service. Dell Computer, for example, has a similar program dubbed ImageWatch, which gives select customers six to twelve months notice of changes affecting Dell hardware, software, and peripherals, including advanced access to product roadmaps.
"It's good for customers, because it allows them to plan for future IT purchases and makes the Compaq platform more stable," said Technology Business Research analyst Lindy Lesperance.
The program is open to large multinational customers and domestic and foreign companies with 1,000 or more users, explained Sandy Warren, project manager for Compaq's Control and Change Notification program. Customers must sign a nondisclosure agreement for getting access to the site, which is password protected.
"Customers are not under one of these deals where they have to sign away their first-born child like some of our competitors do," said Reynolds.
Some analysts disregarded any potential negative impact should Compaq customers share product programs with competitors.
"I don't think it's that much of a risk, since they're only going out up to six months in advance of product announcements," said Lesperance. "The risk is more letting customers compare with what vendors are coming out with."
Customers with advance access to Compaq and Dell future product plans, for example, could make comparative decisions, possibly defeating the program's purpose.
Reynolds didn't see this as the likely scenario.
"The purpose of this tool is not sales, but marketing," Reynolds said. "If they buy and continue to buy Compaq they're going to have a view into the future in terms of what they've got and what they've just ordered."