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) -- Still stuck in the tech spending rut, three giants --


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-- are wistfully watching others ride a revenue growth wave.

With third-quarter financial results rolling in, there is an emerging distinction between tech shops with big annual sales increases, and the rest of the players left behind plotting their own ascent.


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iPhone and Mac

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strength made for a blowout quarter.


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rediscovered its search ad mojo

. And


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blew past expectations

with a big online retail revival.

But Microsoft, Intel and IBM -- the still dominant members of the tech brigade -- continue to

see sales shrink

, down 14%, 8% and 7%, respectively, from year-ago levels. This tech trio has been deftly managing costs and crossing fingers awaiting economic recovery or a big new product cycle to turn fortunes around.

Both Intel and Microsoft are banking on a big turnaround in PC sales to restart the revenue growth engine. PC makers like


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and contract manufacturers like


have placed big chip and Windows 7 orders to prepare a boatload of machines for the Christmas market.

Microsoft said last week it recorded the biggest quarter in sales of Windows licenses, with September being the highest single month of Windows unit sales ever.

Similarly, Intel said earlier this month that its computer processors were flying out the door in the most recent quarter, giving tech-sector watchers

a boost of somewhat false confidence


However, the actual proof of success for Intel and Microsoft will be measured in PC sales. And the obvious negative corollary to that, should the holidays not go as planned, would be a pileup of unsold computer inventory, come January.

Microsoft is hopeful that revenue recovery will come as the economy improves. And the indicators are pointing up, according to CFO Chris Liddell.

There were "signs of stabilization," he told analysts on Microsoft's earnings call Friday. And though it's too early to tell, Liddell added, the September quarter "may well have been the bottom of the economic reset."

IBM's best crystal ball guess was similarly positive. Big Blue eagerly awaits the return of IT spending, which vanished a couple of years ago and has remained elusive ever since.

IBM CFO Mark Loughridge called it "an environment of general stability" on an Oct. 15 earnings call. That relative stability going into 2010 compares well with "what we saw as we went into 2008 and 2009."

It's true that tech has been through a rough stretch, but betting that sales will come roaring back when you are still stuck on the sidelines can be a challenge.