Tech Market 2007: Bobble Not Bubble

So I was sitting in the car yesterday, reading USA Today because I had forgotten a book. (No, I wasn’t driving at the same time.) And I noticed a story in the Money section that wondered if we were seeing a tech boom that was going to turn into another tech horrible collapse. So I leaned back and thought about it, and I think my answer is “No”. It may be a bobble — some companies get wiped out, acquired, scaled back, or oriented in a different direction. I don’t think it’ll be a bubble — — most things get wiped out, scaled back, and we all walk around wearing barrels instead of clothes.

I base my conclusion on several major reasons.

1) People Actually Use the Internet — In 1997 the Internet was still this nifty gee-whiz thing. It wasn’t yet a part of everyday life. Now it is. I wouldn’t say it’s a mature market, but there’s better empirical evidence of what works and what hasn’t worked so far. That will hopefully allow investors and business developers to make better business decisions. (Though if I see anything that looks like Flooz again, all bets are off.) Furthermore there’s a much, much larger customer base now than there was in 1998.

2) We All Got Hangovers — Even those of us who didn’t get $200,000 jobs or invest in insanely-priced stocks felt it when the bubble burst. Maybe it was the free service you were using that suddenly vanished, taking your data with it. Maybe it was the search engine you really liked that suddenly brought development to a screeching halt. Maybe it was the content you wanted that vanished behind a paywall. I think because of this massive shock the attitude of the Internet consumer changed a lot. I don’t feel that Internet users demand that everything be free anymore. (Because of the huge consumer base and the increasing maturity of online advertising, more things may eventually be free, but that’s a consequence, not a demand.) I don’t think consumers will mind paying modestly for a service now.

3) Cynicism is Now Socially Acceptable — It seemed like in 1998-1999, you could not express any reservations about a company idea without getting reviled. Like Flooz, for example. A 2001 Business Week article expresses a few reservations from analysts, but nobody says, “Hey, isn’t this kinda stupid?” Now, because of the previous bubble, analysts and journalists are taking a much closer look at companies.

4) There is (Hopefully) No Catalyst — The whole bubble was not its fault, but I do feel that Enron’s spectacular collapse at the end of 2001 contributed to the length and pain of the tech sector’s recovery (the Washington Post has a very good timeline of the whole Enron mess.) There were other factors, surely — 9/11, the collapse or stumbling of several other companies — but it seems to me that Enron destroyed trust from investors, employees, and customers.

I’ll look back on this in 18 months and see if I was way off or not.

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