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.