NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The word "bottom" has been thrown around quite often during the past year when talking about technology. But every time a company or analyst predicted that it couldn't get any worse, it did.
So at risk of putting a jinx on the sector, some signs exist that things are starting to slowly get a little better. Dell Computer (DELL: Research, Estimates) reported a solid quarter earlier this month and indicated, contrary to conventional wisdom, that Iraq is not a reason that businesses are holding back on spending.
Oracle (ORCL: Research, Estimates) CFO Jeff Henley, speaking in Australia Monday, said that company revenue for this quarter should be slightly higher than a year ago, marking the first increase in nearly two years. Henley added that tech spending should finally start to increase in the second half of this year.
And all eyes will be on Dow component Hewlett-Packard (HPQ: Research, Estimates), which reports results for its fiscal first quarter Tuesday.
Although sales are expected to come in at in at $18.5 billion, down from $19.6 billion a year earlier, the company is expected to report earnings per share of 28 cents, compared with 23 cents a year ago. Plus, there is hope that HP will beat estimates since it did so soundly in its last quarter.
So is tech, dare we say it, finally back on track?
Big business still not spending
While it seems safe to say that the tech outlook probably isn't going to deteriorate further, it's not certain that things will improve substantially any time soon.
Richard Williams, an analyst with Summit Analytic Partners, a research boutique focusing on software companies, notes that the high end of Oracle's original guidance for sales growth in this quarter was 4 percent.
And the market did seem to interpret Henley's comments of "slightly positive" growth as less than the 4 percent growth that was originally hoped for. "That's bad," said Williams. "It means Oracle is not seeing signs of recovery in immediate future." Williams doesn't own Oracle and Summit does not engage in investment banking activity.
Shares of Oracle were down more than 3 percent in midafternoon trading. Oracle will report its fiscal third quarter results in mid-March.
As for HP, even if the company does beat earnings expectations, it will probably be due to more cost savings that resulted from last year's merger with Compaq and continued resilience in consumer spending, not a recovery in business spending.
Eric Ross, an analyst with Investec, says that strength in its printer business should help overcome relatively weak corporate sales of PCs and servers. Ross says that the increased popularity of digital cameras is a big plus for HP because it should lead to increased sales of color printers and components such as ink cartridges and toner. And the recurring need for these peripherals makes printers an extremely profitable business for HP.
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Operating profit margins for HP's printer division in its fiscal fourth quarter were 16.5 percent. By way of comparison, operating margins for the entire company were just 2.4 percent. "Even if you lose money on the printer itself you make it back on the ink," said Ross. He does not own shares of HP, and Investec does not have any investment banking relationship with the company.
Even a relatively bullish tech investor is resigned to the fact that big businesses probably won't renew spending until the latter half of the year. Noel DeDora, manager of the Fremont New Era Value fund, which owns shares of Cisco Systems (CSCO: Research, Estimates), Dell, EMC (EMC: Research, Estimates), Oracle, Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates), and HP, says that a quick, victorious war with Iraq would probably lead to some loosening of companies' purse strings but not enough to unleash a massive wave of spending on tech.
"The atmosphere is not really positive. There are so many uncertainties," said DeDora.