E-Commentary -- Heading For The Clouds -- Again

Dec. 21, 2004
Will tech soar, only to crash once more?

Uh oh, Jack's back. Or at least, the Beanstalk is. You remember the high-tech Beanstalk? The one we all got fooled into climbing, even when it grew well above the cloud layer a few years back? The one that finally collapsed of its own weight, crashing back to earth and taking with it a few trillion dollars worth of market capitalization? Well, it may be time to reach for an oxygen mask -- or better yet, a hang glider -- because we may be atop the cumulus any day now. Witness the latest financial tales from high-tech-dom. To borrow a Jim Carreyism, Yahoo! and Google are smokin.' Heck, even Amazon is making money. To be sure, there is something of a real tech recovery out there, particularly among manufacturers of consumer electronics. Take Apple Computer, which struggled in the mid-1990s with sluggish sales, bloated inventories and a dwindling market share. Apple has successfully remade itself into a manufacturer of not only computers, but other hardware and software for personal entertainment. Burgeoning sales of the iPod digital music player contributed to Apple's more than tripling of profits on a 29% jump in revenue in the latest quarter. Surprisingly Apple sold more iPods in the quarter ended March 27 -- 807,000 -- than computers -- 749,000. Texas Instruments' (TI) first quarter net income also more than tripled in its first quarter on strong sales of semiconductors, a market that had been chipped-out with overcapacity for years. TI's revenue jumped 34% versus the same period a year ago, to $2.94 billion. Much of the growth in sales came from chips for cellphones, a market in which TI is the world leader. Moreover, high tech IPOs are beginning to surge again. It's a phenomenon that hasn't been seen since the bad old days of 1999. Salesforce.com, a 5-year-old hosted applications provider, recently was required by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to delay its initial stock offering -- expected to be the biggest high tech IPO so far this year. With 8,000 customers, many of them small and medium-size manufacturers, Salesforce.com is capitalizing on companies' desire to save money on IT. It seems the SEC dared question Salesforce.com's accounting methods. Hey, in the bad old days, enterprise software firms often booked revenue years in advance the instant some manufacturer bought a license to use their software package, and no one gave a hoot. Times have changed. Now the SEC wants to take their pulse, make sure they've got a financial heartbeat. In case you were wondering, Salesforce.com expected to raise roughly $115 million by having some investment bankers hawk less than a sixth of the firm on the open market. That means Wall Street values the company at a cool $700 million. Some manufacturers are finding ways to get a piece of the action. 3M Co. is promoting its homegrown lines of process improvement software to other manufacturers with similar products. Posco, the South Korean steelmaker with a steel processing venture in California, has launched Posco BioVentures Inc., a $50 million fund aimed at investing in promising U.S. biotech companies. The move toward globalization of software, in fact, is one trend that's contributing to the latest skyward trend. One example is a $60 million fund comprised of capital from investors in China, Singapore and Taiwan, which is being put together by Los Angeles investor Kevin Nikkhoo. The idea is to create a Southern California vehicle that will enable American and Chinese companies to collaborate on software development. Suddenly things are coming up green for high tech. Let's just hope that what grows this time doesn't turn into Beanstalk 2.0. Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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