Techscape: When will things get better?

The Register , 13.11.05

By Bill Robinson

It's now been something over twenty quarters that technology CEOs, CTOs, VCs, investment bankers, tech analysts, pundits and anyone even slightly associated with the Technology sector has been whistling in the dark, keeping a stiff upper lip and exercising a kind of irrational optimism about the economy turning around. “Next quarter,” they say, “things'll definitely get better next quarter.”

And although most have remained unrealistically positive, at no point during this five-year economic downturn have all the participants begun to chorus an upturn - until now. The IT budgets are increasing, they say. M&A activity is on the rise. The investment community is beginning to open up the sources of capital for emerging enterprise. The Google and IPO's will drag the entire tech sector with it back to health.

The only problem is, they haven't; it isn't; and they won't.

Better to utilize my philosophy which is, “Plan for the worst; and hope for the best.” This way if a turnaround is not imminent then we can all adapt to survive. If our redemption is around the corner, well then we prepared for the worst case scenario but got the gravy instead.

The reality is that the UK and Europe can consistently be counted upon to track and lag the US economy by 18 to 24 months. This is inescapable, I am told. If true in this case, the economic situation could get worse, perhaps much worse before it gets better.

This could really hurt.

But, I did not want to just go on my gut instinct. I decided that it would be wisest to ask captains of industry at a Technology Summit in London a simple question; “When will things get better?” It's the question that everybody's asking. I left the query purposely vague so that they could interpret it anyway they chose. Here are their responses:

Ian Jenks, General Partner, Crescendo Ventures We actually think things are starting to get better right now. We're seeing a pick up in enterprise spending that's forecast after two years of decline to increase in the next twelve months. We're seeing the structure debt problems within the big telco providers have gone from consuming in 2000 $39 billion of cash in the next twelve months forecast to generate just under $40 billion in cash, so that's a huge swing in their debt position. And we think things are getting better now and will get better over the next twelve months.

Dr. Peter Cochrane, former BT Chief Technologist and Co-Founder ConceptLabs Things will get better when a really new technology pops up. What we're doing is circulating old technologies. It's more of the same, for a lot less. More of the same, for a lot less. More of the same, for a lot less. Then, if something comes along which changes things radically there will be an upsurge. I believe RFID is going to have a bigger impact than anyone can imagine. Artificial intelligence is also going to be big in marketing. But I have to say, I find it quite humorous that a sector that is still growing in double digits is seen to be a catastrophe.

Marc Andreessen, Netscape founder & Chairman of Loudcloud now Opsware When you get four or five years of stagnation, like we've had, the technology changes so much that when you ultimately come out of it the stuff that succeeds is a lot different than the stuff that succeeded when you went into it. The technology is fundamentally changing. Think back to the 70's, this will be good for FT readers; the “Nifty 50.” As nifty as they were going into the recession of the 70's they were certainly not the Nifty 50 coming out of the recession of the 70's. It was a completely different set of companies. Companies such as Polaroid and Xerox never again attained the heights they once did; because the technology changed. People have been too optimistic about a recovery, clearly.

Warren East, CEO, ARM It's important for companies to balance costs and revenue now because it's a very long tunnel. I'm afraid I don't see a big bang or a rapid change or anything lie that. I see a gradual improvement in the torque of a couple of different market areas. That's in the wireless space. In the enterprise space there will be some modest growth, I don't know when it's going to appear but it's going to be driven by inventories that have been driven down and companies that are unable to defer expenditure forever. A lot of our business is driven computers and for that, I'm afraid, I can't tell you when things are going to get better there. We can see our customers building product now. But what we're not willing to do is say that means things are getting better now because I want to wait until the first quarter of next year to see of the products were built and whether people like you and me are using them.”

Royston Hoggarth , UK CEO, Cable & Wireless Cable & Wireless wants to drive the IP agenda. In the UK and internationally; that's where we are and that's where we come from. In terms of what we're hearing from our customers is that they're looking very hard at changes they're making. Most of what we do is mission-critical and one of the greatest values we bring to the world is that we are resilient. I wouldn't tell you I think the market's moving but we're cautiously optimistic.

Nancy Benovich Gilby, CEO of PocketThis & formerly of Firefly which was sold to Microsoft I think we could be heading for yet another difficult bumping on the bottom. A lot of it is a question of the companies who have been really cash starved without capital. Can they survive a market without venture capital?”

Sudip Nandy, CMO, Wipro Technologies My response is that things have got better erratically, so there is no saying that a solid recovery has happened. The performances have failed to deceive. It happened three times in the last nine or twelve quarters, one quarter showed up and everybody was euphoric then it went down. I think it was the chief economist of Morgan Stanley who said, ‘If I wake up in the morning and if I don't have the Asian countries showing their numbers I would like to commit suicide.' So, the recovery is likely to be driven not by the G7 but by the G61, or whatever you call it.”

Dr. Steve Garnett, SVP & GM EMEA, You know, I don't see an upturn anytime soon. I still think customers are struggling with ROI on IT systems; they have a lot of capacity that they bought. I still think that we're several quarters if not another twelve months away. However, if you can bring real services and real value to the customer, then we'll see customers open up the purse strings and return the sector to health.

Alex van Someren, CEO, nCipher Things will get better when customers decide that they can be seen to be spending again on IT and that hasn't yet happened. People are still uncomfortable about being seen to be spending money; they're still thinking about the fact that they had to deal with layoffs and the fact that they cosmetically need to look like they are keeping their eye on the bottom line.”

Steve Gill, VP/Managing Director, Hewlett-Packard UK & Ireland I think it will get better, not immediately but it will get better. I think there are a few signs that it will require the global economy as well as key investment confidence to come back. I would say it's not today or tomorrow but it's slightly out in the future.

Marc Benioff, Chairman & CEO, Our company has a real time database for 8000 companies' sales data and we don't look inside their databases but we do know when they hire and fire sales reps which turns out to be a leading indicator of the economy. We're definitely out of a recession and in an expansion. I don't know the trajectory but the economy is expanding

Graham Lay, Managing Director, EDS Defence Ltd. What I think is that what we're looking for is the new business model that is going to drive a new phase of technology. I think what drove the Internet era was things like disintermediation and changing the business model. What we have is a number of bits of technology that are converging at the moment and the question is how we can bring them together in a new business model.”

Christian Moeller, President, Sprint Europe There's light at the end of the tunnel; I still think we're in the tunnel. The focus is still on just bandwidth and capacity, when in fact it ought to be on what's the value that we drive with our solutions for IT. Until we get better at correlating that we won't see a broad recovery. I think that we are probably still two years away from what I would call a broad recovery. So in other words, I'm saying it's going to take time.”

Paul Coby, CIO, British Airways I think they're saying that IT spend is picking up, people are busy talking it up. But, the fact that you can see in the space considerable productivity increases which appear to be driven by technology, I think you can see signs of recovery around the airline industry. This suggests that recovery might just be right around the corner. However, no one should get carried away. It requires just one shock, and we've had several over the last two or three years, to smother the recovery.” Is your IT budget at BA growing I wondered? “It's the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, is my IT operational spend growing? No it isn't. I've reduced it by one-third even though we're doing more and all our energies are on providing more effective, cheaper, more efficient IT operations for the airlines 24/7.

Dr. Mike Lynch, Founder and CEO, Autonomy Bottom line, I don't think there's any basis on which anyone can make a rational assessment on that. There's a sort of market efficiency argument that if there was, it would be exploited. So, actually I could almost prove that anyone that gives you a firm answer is by definition wrong. (Laughs heartily.) The more interesting question is are you seeing things and what will you see when it happens—how would you know the elephant when it walks in? If you take the HBR view (Harvard Business Review article “IT Doesn't Matter”-essentially that the importance of Technology is over), that this is all a done deal, it's just like railways and it's over now. I'm totally convinced that's wrong. Technology is a recombinant area: it mutates, it grows, it evolves. The big issue about all of these asinine debates is timescale. The fundamental driver is value creation. I completely believe that the fat lady has not even begun to sing on the Technology front.

James Bennet, Managing Director, European Technology Forum I think it's very difficult to say when things will get better but I think in terms of where the IT industry as a whole is Richard Holway of Ovum Holway gave a very good analogy by saying that the industry has been living in denial. I think that IT spending is likely to remain flat for another couple of years. I don't think that within the next couple of years there will be a new, new thing that will drive IT spending in the way Y2K or the Internet did.

So, there we have it. With several exceptions, not really too much doom and gloom; certainly more optimism than pessimism with mostly certainty that it will come back just uncertainty about when. Which might be perfectly synched with the British view of the world, I don't know.

Let's hope that they're right and that the tech sector comes storming back soon!