Tech IPOs: bubble, bubble, hype and trouble

Stephen Pritchard

Let's party like it's 1999. So went the lyrics of the Prince hit. And with a new wave of deals and stock market listings, the technology world is starting to look rather like it did in 1999 once again.

This week, LinkedIn, the business social network, raised the price range of its initial public offering by $10 (6.10); if the listing is a success the company will be worth $4.3bn (2.6bn). Yet LinkedIn is not expected to make a profit this year.

Last week valued at $50 billion.

It is all rather reminiscent of the late 90s, when CEOs flew Concorde as a matter of course and executives shipped in American pet food by Fed Ex (yes, your correspondent served his time at a start up).

The fortunes of the tech market could not stand in starker contrast to those of the wider economy: inflation is high, growth is low, and businesses are still reluctant to invest. HP, which was forced to release its results early this week, following a leaked memo, has reported a drop in PC sales, especially to consumers.

Not all blame can be placed at Apple's door. Software vendors say that although business is picking up again, they have yet to see the large deals they were winning five years ago.

So on the one hand, the stock markets are flocking to any tech company, almost regardless of its potential for profitability, particularly if it is online, and especially if it involves social media.

On the other, enterprises remain very cautious with their funds, and only want to spend on technology where they will see a return in under six months. One CIO IT PRO spoke to this week was looking to drive significant cost savings out of his business by moving a key application to the cloud. Was he planning to spend the money on launching a new product, or on a great social media campaign? No. The funds are being earmarked to replace his ageing fleet of desktop PCs, and even that probably will not happen this year.

It is all too easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight, but it does look as if the markets, or at least some parts of them, are behaving in a very similar manner to the way they did during the last dot com boom. Then, investors lost billions when the dot coms' shares collapsed in 2000 and 2001.

Hopefully, the lessons learned the hard way then have not been forgotten, and the current valuations will turn out to be the coincidence of a few, unique and potentially very profitable, businesses coming to market rather than the start of a new bubble. Otherwise, we'll all be playing another line of that Prince song: "Two thousand zero zero party over/oops out of time".

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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