It was a cold sunday in the midwest when I hopped the plane to Atlanta for the IBM Partnerworld conference. I rented a car at Hartsfield International Airport, drove directly to my hotel, and turned the keys over to the valet. A charming woman named Lolita checked me in. "Welcome to the South," the porter said. I wouldn't see much of it.
Instead, I could look forward to 48 hours of Big Blue. This annual conference attempts to bring together IBM executives and all the consultants, resellers, and developers who use and sell the company's technology. Almost every large tech vendor hosts a similar event, usually somewhere sunny. Oracle, for instance, was holding its AppsWorld conference in New Orleans. Only a few days shy of Mardi Gras, Bill Clinton was going to be in town as a guest speaker. That promised to be a good time.
The IBM event featured grandees' speeches, countless seminars, cocktail parties, and, of course, the concert on Tuesday night -- but I'd be gone by then. "You're going to miss Bonnie Raitt," one IBM PR rep said to me, sadly. "That's all I'm looking forward to." But I had no time for frivolities. I dropped my luggage in my room, and I dashed to the roundtable discussion downstairs.
The Omni Hotel at CNN Center adjoins both the CNN building and the conference center at which most of the main events would be held. From certain hotel rooms, you can see right into the studios. (The hotel cable package includes CNN, CNNfn, CNN/SI, and just about every other flavor of the network you could imagine.) On the set of the CNN program "Talkback Live," an analyst was chewing the fat with high-level executives from MarchFirst, Razorfish, and iXL. These companies tell large corporations how to "integrate" and "transform" into "e-businesses." All had recently announced significant layoffs, and were struggling to drum up business. It was reassuring, in a certain way, to know that even large businesses are still extremely uncertain about what all this new technology will mean for their businesses. "They've been sold the Kool-Aid on certain applications," said iXL's Chris Formant.
The next morning was the main event: CEO Lou Gerstner's keynote speech. Hundreds of people filed into an enormous conference room, the lights went down, and ten-foot tall images of the white-haired Gerstner appeared on the dozen or so televisions scattered around the room. He sounded less worried than the consultants the night before, but less than certain about what the future held.
"In the beginning was a vision wrapped in a marketing message," he intoned. "Now e-business is just business. We've passed through the roller coaster of e-business phase one. A lot of zealots marched down a lot of blind alleys." As he mixed metaphors, Gerstner expressed his belief that his industry's future lies in what he calls "e-sourcing."
"We are rapidly approaching the day when our customers will no longer have to own, manage, or even house the key components of our industry," he said. "They'll access it over the Net, pay for it as needed, as used."
So what would that mean for small businesses? I took advantage of my close proximity to the brain trust to look for some answers. Chris Walter, IBM's head of marketing for medium-size businesses, shared some speculations. "This could be a game-changer," she says. "There could be a fundamental change in the way people buy technology." IBM could turn itself into a company that primarily sells technology advice to other technology companies, who in turn deliver the actual services to small businesses. In his keynote, Gerstner had hinted that the company might find it wise to stop trying to serve a vast number of individual companies, and instead cater to "a small number of large vendors," who could become experts in certain industries. IBM would support them with technology and their brand.
I checked out of the hotel full of questions. When businesses decide to "e-source," they tie themselves ever more closely into the web of technological partnerships on display at this conference. At the same time, the company behind the brand is distancing itself. David Bradley, head of IBM.com, believes "e-sourcing" is the direction the tech business is headed. "It's not a question of whether," he told me, "but when?" I'm not so sure, but it's early yet.