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Forget Carly, my money's on Lou

Will Carleton Fiorina be able to do for HP what Lou Gerstner has done for IBM in the realm of e-commerce?

Time for a confession, folks; I was wrong about IBM. But more about that later.

Sometime later this fall, IBM will rebrand its entire server line as part of Big Blue's ongoing remake as an e-commerce company, according to certain people who - as they say in the newspapers - are in a position to know about these things.

The separate brands in the current server family, comprising the AS/400, S/390, Netfinity, Numa-Q and RS/6000, go bye-bye. The new name: e-servers.

Technologies will be shared across the line.

Workflow balancing, for instance, which originated on the System/390, and remote IO support, which is now available only on certain server lines, will be extended to all e-servers.

It's another move to get all its salespeople working off the same page. This past February, IBM quietly made changes to its 2,000-person large-server sales force. The new marching order was to sell the entire server family and eliminate the parochial fragmentation where you either sold one line or you sold another.

In the news biz, this doesn't quite qualify as a stop-the-presses event. But it opens another small window into the thinking at IBM, where the e-commerce religion preached by Chairman Lou Gerstner these last few years has been fully accepted as gospel by his minions.

And that has made for a startling transformation. I have to admit that I did not think IBM would do as well as it has. In fact, when the big-iron makers began getting serious about e-commerce a few years back, I thought Hewlett-Packard had a better chance of understanding and exploiting the Internet.

My mistake.

Gerstner took a calculated gamble and put the company's muscle into services, an area that fetched relatively paltry margins compared with the 60 percent or more IBM made selling mainframe computers. The payoff: The services group is growing by at least 20 percent a quarter and in 1999 accounted for some $32 billion in sales.

You might conclude that this should have been a no-brainer, since it was an outgrowth of the systems integration business that IBM has been doing since time immemorial. But nothing is a given, especially in the Internet age. And better than HP or any of its other rivals, IBM retrofitted its traditional services and integration unit to take advantage of the explosion of demand for e-commerce services.

The folks at IBM understood that this involved a lot more than hooking up a Web server. E-commerce in the Internet age comprises a full range of considerations about back-end integration that include links to databases, transactional programs and inventory; the message here being that IBM delivers solutions, not just products.

Judging by the endless number of puff pieces in the business press devoted to the bang-up job done by HP's boss, the company's PR department has done yeoman work cultivating the Cult of Carly. Call me a curmudgeon, thank you, but Carleton Fiorina's biggest challenge remains: Will she be able to do for HP what Lou Gerstner has done for IBM in the realm of e-commerce?