IBM aims to send allies clear message

The term e-business was the best thing to ever come along for IBM. Guided by CEO Louis Gerstner's strategy to rein in IBM Corp.'s sprawling organization, the notion of doing business via the Internet gave IBM's rich but sometimes conflicting product lines a galvanizing strategy to rally behind.

With IBM's PartnerWorld conference this week in Atlanta, the IT granddaddy will show off the latest and greatest in its technology war chest. And once again, the theme is integration across its legacy of disparate product lines.

As our Page One story by Editor at Large Ed Scannell shows, this is a critical juncture for IBM and its partnership program. A little more than two years ago, IBM bought into the CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) markets. But what application developer wants to compete with its platform provider? IBM has since scrapped that plan and has signed up with some heavy-hitting ISVs, notably Siebel Systems Inc., and has entered a somewhat shaky partnership with Ariba Inc. and i2 Technologies Inc.

Interestingly, Microsoft Corp., whose trump card has always been its strong developer relations program, recently bought financial applications developer Great Plains Software Inc. Microsoft shrugged off any conflict, but I bet a few solution providers are thinking twice about their allegiances.

IBM has made plenty of missteps in the past, but the e-business banner -- and the integration technology, processing muscle, and professional services pieces behind it -- has at least found the company singing consistent themes.

But IBM still has some problems telling its story. Consider the emerging field of Web services and Internet applications, in which IBM would seem to be a natural. Competing platform providers Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems Inc. have garnered most of the buzz. Once again in this field, wooing partners may be IBM's toughest task.

Has IBM set its internal business story straight and learned how to play well with others?

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