Have You Logged On to a Ford Lately?

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Henry Ford wanted everyone to have a cheap car; his corporate descendants want a computer in every home. The Ford Motor Company announced Thursday that every one of its 350,000 employees would be eligible to receive a free Hewlett Packard computer, a color printer and $5-a-month Internet access via UUNet in a worldwide program beginning in April. The program will be reviewed after three years. "Ford has had very good labor relations over the past decade, and this remarkable initiative is certainly going to help maintain the loyalty of their workforce," says TIME business correspondent Frank Gibney. "It also helps the company's plan to project itself as a major force on the Internet, and to ensure the widest possible computer literacy among its employees. It's a magnanimous gesture that Ford could afford right now, and could be of tremendous long-term benefit."

Ford has long tried to project the image that it is the most ecologically conscious automaker — by making cars whose emission levels are even lower than what regulations require — as well as the most wired, by using web sites to supply parts and keep track of maintenance records. The home-computer scheme burnishes the corporation's forward-looking image by investing in the quality of life of its employees — the sort of p.r. spin that helped build GM's Saturn as a viable brand name in the '90s. Improving the high-tech skills of the workforce also reflects the needs of an increasingly digitized production process, while connecting all its employees to the Internet allows the company to contemplate online training initiatives (Ford promises not to peek into the employees' Internet and e-mail traffic).

Is it likely to become an auto-industry trend? "Unlikely," says Gibney. "Although they may want to do something similar, most of Ford's competitors may not be able to afford it." The most immediate beneficiary of the scheme, of course, is Hewlett Packard, which is now expecting an order equivalent to 4 percent of its 1999 worldwide sales. Corporations with money to burn — Ford has $23.6 billion in cash reserves — ought to expect calls from Compaq, Dell, Gateway and Apple.