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Forecast: Showers Still Likely

Not so fast. For every break in the clouds come signs of more rain. If bellwether tech vendors are so confident about their prospects, why are their principals unloading so much of their stock? Steve Ballmer, for instance, sold close to $1 billion worth of Microsoft shares last month, and Michael Dell sold almost $300 million of Dell shares. Across all industries, shares worth more than $3.1 billion were sold last month by corporate insiders, the largest amount of such selling in two years.

Meantime, all that tech merger activity may not signal a recovery after all. As the industry matures and growth rates slacken, many vendors are looking to consolidate merely to survive.

InformationWeek's IT Confidence Index, which gauges how tech managers feel about their budgets, project plans, companies, industries and the overall economy, hit an all-time low in the second quarter. Fewer than half of the 300 managers interviewed said they feel positive about their future IT project start dates, for instance, and only 21 percent feel positive about the U.S. economy. Even when confidence and spending do roar back, most experts expect IT hiring to lag well behind. As it is, compensation is flat or down for most IT positions. Who'll stop the rain?

Don't count on any single economic indicator, vendor prognostication, trend or stat to point the way to dry land. To stray from our water metaphor, marketers, consultants, analysts, journalists, IT managers and venture capitalists are like passengers in a cramped 747: We inhale and recirculate the same hot air. Where's the tech spending? Where's the pent-up demand? What's the next big thing? One person's off-the-cuff perspective can become the accepted wisdom.

Most of us have lived through too many "Year of ..." predictions (Year of ISDN, Year of the ASP, Year of Convergence, Year of the Wireless LAN, Year of Web Services) to take these kinds of pronouncements too seriously. Suffice it to say that two years into the tech downturn, infrastructures are getting older and operating closer to their capacities; users are yearning for more mobility; applications remain incompatible; and valuable information is inaccessible to those who need it and vulnerable to those intent on misusing it. But when those challenges will translate into rejuvenated spending depends on too many technical, economic, organizational, regulatory and other factors to predict with confidence.

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