“Good times”? For whom?

I was surprised on reading Ovum principal analyst David Bradshaw’s brief analysis of Salesforce.com’s latest results today. Not because his analysis of their results was awry, but because at the end of his note he writes, "Salesforce.com is still in the early years of its life and the last thing it needs is to find itself atop a bubble that would inevitably burst. But, hey, who in the tech sector does not secretly long for a return to the good times, even when we know it was more hype than truth?" I would assume that Bradshaw makes the comment tongue firmly in cheek, but it’s a question worth asking: would it be better to see the massive growth and optimism that preceded the dot-com bubble? The answer, I believe, is ‘no’.

I’m not sure, in fact, if you could equate the dot-com bubble with good times in the first place. This was a time when, admittedly, a lot of people in the technology industry became very rich, very fast. Some entrepreneurs with little more than an idea made pots of cash, as did plenty of savvy investors who bought low and sold high – ludicrously high.

But there were also those companies and individuals that suddenly lost the confidence of the market. A decent business model, loyal customer base and even growing profits were not always enough to keep shares buoyant, attract the necessary calibre of staff, or maintain the enthusiasm of the media. While some companies and individuals were getting rich, others were seeing their hard work crumble to dust.

If you were not a dot-com you were lost, and the impact on companies ‘foolish enough’ to avoid the fanfare of adding ‘web-enabled’ to their products or strategic direction was far more real than the inflated expectations of the entire dot-com white elephant.

The money that was redirected to the pathetic dot-coms, many of which were always destined to fail, had to come from somewhere. It was money that would – if not for dot-coms – have been spent by investors and technology customers on technologies that held the promise of genuine prospects for long-term growth and real ROI, respectively. The dot-com bubble gave technology companies, analysts, the media, and even some investors a bad name. Not only after the bubble burst, but also during those "good times".

Writing in 1999, Henry Blodget, then at Merrill Lynch said: "Unlike with other famous bubbles… the Internet bubble is riding on rock-solid fundamentals, perhaps stronger than any the market has seen before. Underlying the crazy price increases are the foundations of what could become the early 21st century’s leading growth companies…. Just because the Internet stock phenomenon looks like a bubble, it isn’t a given that the bubble will burst." That, for me, sums up the "good times" before the bubble burst.

The Computer Business Review Index, which tracks the performance of the industry as a whole, has just seen its 13th consecutive month in positive figures, with the most recent average growth rate of 15% showing that the industry is seeing all of its hard work pay off. Given the choice between consistent growth like this, or the boom and bust cycle of Y2K and the dot-com bubble, I reckon most people would go for the former.

There is still a place for excitement, evangelism, enthusiasm and even hype in the IT industry. But hopefully not for a return to the senseless bull market that drove the dot-com meltdown. If they were the "good times", you can keep them.

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