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Fireworks On A Clear Night

The dot-com explosion had many predicting long-term destruction. But there are some indications that the worst is over
I'm writing these words in Silicon Valley, ground zero of the decimation of the dot-com economy. The sounds I expected to hear were gnashing teeth, plaintive moans from holders of worthless stock options, and laments from people who'd abandoned the Old Economy in favor of dot-coms.

As so often happens, I was dead wrong.

Instead, I was greeted with an unmistakable sense that--somehow--the worm of negativity has turned. What I perceive is short of optimism, but it surely isn't the pessimism and near-helplessness that overtook us during the past 12 months.

The feeling that things somehow are righting themselves set in only two or three weeks ago. A subtle but palpable change in attitude began to surface in my conversations with InformationWeek readers. Strategic initiatives and tactical plans were no longer characterized as pipe dreams. They were discussed in terms of "what we're doing today is ..." A small change, to be sure, but a welcome one.

I work at the grassroots level of the technology economy, and I've noticed that the nature of the phone calls coming into my office has changed, too. In late May, the requests for my time stepped up smartly. The folks I work with regularly once again have smiles in their disembodied voices. In sum, people are spending money again.

By any stretch, is my theory that recovery is under way a technical analysis based upon a learned study of technical, empirical factors? Hardly. It is, though, an honest assessment of what's going on out there, arrived at based on what all my sensory organs and my gut have been telling me with increasing frequency and amplitude.

The better news is that I'm not alone. In conversations with a bunch of folks far wiser than me, I learned that even some big guns are looking at life with a renewed sense of promise, though not necessarily through rose-colored glasses.

On The Upbeat
I received the first affirmation of my thinking while listening to Ray Lane speak at a dinner. The estimable Mr. Lane, general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, isn't one given to irrational optimism or pessimism. He is, above all, a realist. He's also among a select group of people who have proved, over the long haul, that they really "get it."

Lane was talking about organizational transformation and specific technologies that will enable same, when he came to a critical juncture and said things are "rising from ... from ... this last year." His uncharacteristic inability to put words to what we've experienced this past year speaks volumes. The past year almost defies description, even for someone of Lane's experience and intelligence.

But what he said a moment later, when he averred that he's seeing "absolutely no shortage of demand" for technology, absolutely caught my attention. Why, I thought, are we experiencing this lingering malaise? Why do we all feel as though the market is in the Dumpster? What's it going to take to bring the fun back?

I never heard Lane's specific thinking on those questions, but they were answered for me less than 12 hours later, when I heard Irving Wladawsky-Berger deliver a keynote at the eBusiness Conference and Expo last week.

Wladawsky-Berger, VP for technology and strategy at IBM's server group and until recently overseer of IBM's global E-business strategy, provided perspective when he said of the E-economy that "this thing is real ... and the better news is that there's still lots and lots of room for growth."

His conclusion is based IBM's findings, which say that while more than 90% of companies worldwide have adopted some form of E-business technology, fewer than 5% of those have truly integrated E-technologies and E-techniques on an end-to-end basis.

If that's true, why are we living through a meltdown? Wladawsky-Berger's response was typically pithy and on the mark: "Even the best technologies aren't right if you don't know what you're doing."

His contention is that we've lived through a period where capital was plentiful, when even bad business plans glowed as appealingly as fireworks on a clear night. Dot-coms were born and glowed as brightly--and for about as long--as those fireworks. And they vanished with barely a trace.

Part market Darwinism and part sheer pragmatism, Wladawsky-Berger's theory is a sound one, backed by examples great and small. He showed me that E-business is driving both revenue and profits for the outfits smart enough and visionary enough to put those tools to practical use.

Take The Cure
So where are we? Coping, I suppose, with the morning after. We recollect vaguely that we'd had a stupendous, intoxicating time, but we're now sitting around, slightly disoriented, with pounding headaches and only sketchy memories of what transpired during the fun time. All we know, at first, is pain and discomfort. But hangovers go away eventually, cured by remedies of all sorts. We have to take the cure, and, eventually, we remind ourselves, things will be righted.

Well, it seems that we collectively have taken the cure. The headache is going away, and the ability to consume is once again returning. In this economy, as with the ebbing of a hangover, one's gut is the best barometer of recovery. It says here that the pain has let up and indeed things are righting themselves.

Pipe dream or accurate assessment? We'll revisit soon.