The Alliance

might not be dead, but its pulse is awfully weak.

Since

Ariba

(ARBA)

unveiled its plans to acquire

Agile Software

(AGIL)

last week, the usual

speculation about the health of the three-way Alliance among Ariba,

i2 Technologies

(ITWO)

and

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

has reached a fever pitch. Since Agile is an i2 competitor, and the relationship between i2 and Ariba already is

shaky, many market watchers see Ariba's planned acquisition as the last nail in the Alliance's electronic coffin.

And why shouldn't they? After a huge marketing and public relations effort on the part of the Alliance companies last year --

backed by a $90 million marketing campaign -- news of fresh deals from the Alliance has become particularly sparse lately. As has always been the case with this partnership, it's what the companies don't say that tells the story.

The most recent press release on the Alliance's Web site is dated Oct. 10, and it was about an expanded reseller agreement between i2 and Ariba. For the uninitiated, reseller agreements in the software biz are about as stimulating as

melatonin at midnight. The last new customer news appears to be from September, when i2 announced a marketplace for the European health market that would be built with help from Ariba and IBM.

The Possible Fallout

If the partnership collapses, the companies may have a tougher time landing customers on their own, especially after touting their combined strength. And Ariba, thanks to its focus on a specific part of business-to-business e-commerce called procurement, could have the toughest time on its own.

The public relations firm responsible for promoting the Alliance didn't respond to numerous requests for information on recent customers. i2 and Ariba also didn't respond to questions about customers.

"This thing has been over for quite a while," says Mark Verbeck, an analyst at

Epoch Partners

. "The press releases are the first place to look, and even some of the joint deals are not as joint as they look. Most of the joint deals are heavily weighted toward one or another of the partners." (Verbeck's firm doesn't assign traditional brokerage ratings for companies, and his firm hasn't done underwriting for any of the Alliance companies.) Ariba, i2 and IBM launched the Alliance in March, boldly playing it up as a B2B dream team that would provide the software and services for companies that wanted to engage in e-commerce. They even went so far as to name it the Alliance with a capital A. But quietly,

fissures began appearing as Ariba and i2 started competing more and more with each other.

All but Done

Analysts and industry watchers say the dearth of Alliance news now, combined with the Agile acquisition, is the final confirmation that the Alliance is all but officially done. However an executive at IBM, which has been the peacemaker between Ariba and i2 in this partnership, says things aren't that black and white. The Alliance has been landing new customers, he said, but a change in the market has contributed to the lack of news.

In recent months, individual corporations have opted to set up their own, private marketplaces on the Internet where they can conduct business with select partners. Those are different from what the Alliance was courting, public marketplaces that open themselves up to entire industries.

"Toward the end of the year, these big public marketplace deals started to dry up," says Jay Ennesser, IBM's vice president of B2B marketplace sales. "What we have been very focused on is the connectivity to the existing marketplaces that we've won."

Including private marketplaces, Ennesser says the Alliance is "very quickly doubling" the number of previously announced customers, which has hovered at 25 since last fall. He also says the Alliance has sold nearly $1 billion in products and services.

Speculating

A spokesman couldn't explain why the companies aren't promoting these new customers. And with no new information, observers are left to speculate.

Kevin O'Marah, an analyst at

AMR Research

says the eventual demise of the Alliance is inevitable, and that the lack of new deals shows that.

"We've been looking at this thing from the beginning, and we've been saying we're seeing nothing but heartbreak from here," says O'Marah, whose firm counts all three companies as clients.

But he also points out that the customers the Alliance has won will still pay off for the companies, down the road. "The existing customers probably don't need to worry, they'll take care of them. IBM's there for that," says O'Marah. "But they're probably not doing any more

new customers together, either."

IBM's Ennesser says the Alliance is there for those who want it.

How the Game Is Played

"If there's a big marketplace that wants all these parts, we'll be there for that," Ennesser says. "But it's just not the way the customers are playing the game at this point."

In any case, O'Marah says not to look for any definitive, clear end for the Alliance. A slow fade is more likely, underscored by the deafening silence of the lack of news that will come out of it.

"Just because the parties stopped working together, doesn't mean the contract gets torn up," O'Marah said. "What they tend to do is just let the contract lapse into irrelevance."

Epoch's Verbeck will be looking for more clear-cut proof. "The first admittance of it will be when we hear about them

Ariba and i2 competing on an account," Verbeck said. "That's the next big story."

Just don't look for a press release when that happens.