Ford and Delta may have started a tidal wave. The months ahead will tell. Certainly there's compelling logic in their newest employee benefit: If business is gravitating toward the Internet, you'd better give your workers the means to get there, too.
So the carmaker and the airline, incidentally over the same weekend, announced plans to equip a combined work force of more than 440,000 people worldwide with personal computers at home, complete with Internet service. The estimated costs to employees ranges from $5 a month (Ford) to $12 a month (Delta).
Company officials have downplayed their own cost - hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and ship the equipment - as small compared to the potential payoff. They foresee a staff increasingly sophisticated about the 21st-century work environment, more aware of what customers want, and more in touch with their companies.
If many other large firms follow the lead of Ford and Delta, the 40 percent of American households now online could grow rapidly. That, doubtless, is part of the business thinking at work here: building the overall e-market. But the social and educational impact of this move can't be discounted either.
The trend toward electronic commuting and working at home could get an added boost - with attendant adjustments on the domestic front. Many thousands more children may discover the online treasure trove of information (while being shielded from the Web's tawdrier side).
In Ford's case, the program could have its greatest impact abroad, since well over half the company's 370,000 employees live outside the US, where Internet access at home is much less common. Other countries and regions are very aware of the gap between Internet-savvy Americans and their own populace.
The European Union, for example, has launched a campaign to make every EU worker computer literate within three years, aiming to put computers in every school and training teachers to use PCs.
Hooking up schools is important. But nothing quite equals home access to the Web and e-mail. Ford and Delta are on the front edge of a wave.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society