In my 20 years of trolling up and down Silicon Valley for stories, I've always found it a relentlessly positive place. We didn't need the Internet mania of 1998-99 for Valley tech people to think things were going to the moon; they were that way in the mid- and late 1980s, and throughout the '90s.

I like hearing that kind of enthusiasm, even if I have to run it through a stern reality filter before figuring out what it means. And I've always liked the consistency of the Valley's positive outlook: If the people dreaming up and making this stuff aren't optimistic, how could I be?

Which may have been the most worrying takeaway from my time in the Valley last week, because for the first time I found people consistently negative. Negative, at least, about the prospects for a near to midterm turnaround in almost every corner of the tech market: chips, software, hosting, content management, you name it.

I played a little game last week that I often use on these "go-see" trips: I ask everyone I see one key question. Last week it was, "When do you think things are going to turn around, get positive again, not go back to 'the old days' but just produce a quarter we can all feel good about?"

The answer, with pretty amazing consistency: "the first quarter of 2003."

Ouch

. That's not a "things are coming back in the fourth quarter" response. Nor "maybe 12 months," nor "maybe 12 to 18 months." The first quarter of 2003? That's a nuclear winter away from today.

And I heard it again and again.

Wasn't the only answer, of course; I did hear some of the "about 12 months from now" stuff I hear from some analysts as well.

But as I followed up on my meta-question, even the people who though it might be only a year before we see a real tech turnaround had all sorts of cavils and pullbacks about how it could well be a good deal longer than a year. "Like, you know, it could be maybe 18 months, 22 months... "

If I used to find the Valley's mindlessly positive outlook skewed, I have to question this Q1/03 stuff as well: The same people who were wrong before, on the positive side, may very well be wrong again, on the negative side.

But I found myself coming back again and again to this notion of 20 months or more, and it does have some logic. Getting things back on track isn't a one-trick pony -- say, "corporate IT purchasing picks up substantially." It requires a return to positive territory on several fronts before we can say tech is rolling again, from telcos' recovery to increased personal computer and server demand to widespread adoption of new software to cleaning out warehouses of aging inventory.

And so I think there's some wisdom to that notion of Q1/03 as "the next good quarter, across the board."

Don't

like

it, mind you ... but think it may make some sense.

Just a few more data points from the field ...

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are, or have been recently, consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to send your feedback to

Jim Seymour.