Tech's go-to names are stuck on the bench as big business learns a new playbook.Wall Street has spent four long years waiting for information technology spending to bounce off the deck. Recovery hopes have only grown stronger this year as big-name CEOs filtered some optimism into their cautious economic outlooks. But some observers say investors awaiting a revival in the likes of Cisco ( CSCO) and Microsoft ( MSFT) should stop holding their breath. These analysts say the business-technology game has changed so much that what is commonly thought to be a brief pause in capital spending may actually mark a lasting drop. In the last boom, companies felt pressured to put their businesses on the Web to stave off competition. That meant lots of spending on new gear and software. But now many corporations aren't hearing those footsteps, and a surplus of existing technologies means that workable solutions to various problems can be had on the cheap. All this comes at the expense of growth and profit margins at the big tech companies that drove the 1990s tech frenzy. "You no longer have the specter of dot-coms coming to take your business," says Sanford Bernstein analyst Paul Sagawa. "You aren't thinking of tech as the core of your business -- you've gone back to thinking of it more as a cost center." In fact, if not for a federal tech spending binge, there would be little large-scale IT activity to point to recently. Tech-spending skeptics point out that the Nasdaq's turn-of-the-century upsurge was marked by one simple premise: Companies had to adopt a whole new communications technology -- or risk an attack on their business from any upstart sporting some Internet routers and data servers along with a storefront on the Web. Predictably, nature took its course. The overspending that gave rise to the boom era was answered by the weight of oversupply, which led to huge slides in shares of tech era favorites such as Dell ( DELL) and Intel ( INTC).
Assuming all things are cyclical, investors hunkered down through the slide, expecting a big upswing as the tech market and the economy regained equilibrium. The patient approach seemed to be paying off early in 2004, as the shares of tech's so-called four horsemen -- Microsoft, Dell, Intel and Cisco -- staged a January revival. But as critics such as RealMoney.com pundit Paul Kedrosky point out in his tale of the
tech-opalypse, the Internet has already been invented, and there appears to be nothing quite as momentous waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, corporate spending priorities have shifted. During the boom, businesses embraced tech at all costs. But today, tech is just another cost to be avoided if at all possible. For that reason, assumptions about pent-up demand for IT gear are dissolving, say analysts. "In the 90s we had a whole crop of new applications like customer relationship management, we had the World Wide Web and remote access that all drove network spending," says Sagawa. "We don't have any compelling new technology like that today." Take Cisco's much-delayed top-of-the-line router -- nicknamed the huge fast router, or HFR. The highly anticipated device promises to be one of the largest leaps forward in Internet traffic-sorting hardware. But Cisco hasn't announced a customer for the big box yet, causing some to wonder if the big Net spending is exhausted. "I just don't see a lot of demand for it right now," says Telecom Pragmatics analyst Sam Greenholtz. "There's been a lot of talk, but no one's breaking out their checkbooks." Cisco didn't immediately return a call seeking comment. While trimmed spending and a lack of so-called killer apps certainly plays a role, American Technology Research analyst Albert Lin says the tech slump is part of a bigger pattern largely isolated to North America.
After overspending on a wave of innovative, cutting-edge products, Lin says companies have now shifted money toward technology integration. Business-services outsourcing firms led by IBM ( IBM) are getting a much bigger slice of the tech budget as they're called in to make all the new gear compatible with other systems. Also, says Lin, you have big businesses getting smaller and small businesses growing, which alters the market for IT gear. Big businesses are still consolidating operations, reducing jobs, closing branches and subsequently not shopping for new hardware. Meanwhile, small and midsize businesses have been expanding. But Lin says as tech buyers, the smaller shops tend to fly fairly low to the ground. The shifting buying trends don't bode well for high margin players like Cisco, say analysts. Lin, who has a buy rating on rivals Juniper ( JNPR) and Nortel ( NT), a hold on Lucent ( LU) and no rating on Cisco, says one reason is there is "less of a push toward new edgy stuff is that the price of older stuff is falling so fast." Supplies of existing technologies are available far more cheaply from Asia, say Lin. It makes much more sense to go with the proven equipment, rather than ripping it out, and installing new gear with new headaches, says Lin. So with no new Internet to build, and cheaper rivals
invading its turf, Cisco and the other members of the fading Net era vanguard must address problems of maturity. "I think it is telling that you have Cisco, the poster child of the networking revolution a decade ago, now talking about share buybacks and dividends because they don't see any growth ahead," says Lin.