NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
A debate has erupted among the chattering classes that ought to be of great interest to investors in tech stocks.
The heated conversation is generally between those who make their living selling information technology, or IT, and one writer at the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Carr, who had the temerity to author an article called "IT Doesn't Matter."
While investors don't really need to decide how they feel emotionally about the tech industry, it is important they factor into their decision-making who's got the better argument.
If Carr's right, then over the long haul tech stocks, as a group, will be no better than something like consumer cyclicals. PCs and washing machines: Same difference.
Chew on that for a moment.
The debate is passionate because IT means so much to so many. Especially in Silicon Valley, technology is more than an industry. It's a way of life, a manner of thinking, almost a religion.
And in comes Carr, a journalist, arguing that IT has become boring. He says the critical decision managers need to make about technology isn't what to buy but how to avoid overspending on it.
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He makes a critical distinction between proprietary and infrastructure technology. Proprietary technology is the killer application that allows one business to crush everybody else. That was the case for Wal-Mart when Sam Walton pioneered the use of satellites to gather and use store data from far-flung locations.
Infrastructure technology, on the other hand, is an important tool that everybody has to have.
This distinction is where the debate gets messy.
Even though the infrastructure technology is important -- critical, even -- to doing business, the fact that every company has to have it diminishes its ability to be proprietary, and therefore strategic. Railroads, electricity and, Carr dares to say, the Internet, PCs and software applications all fit this description.
Ganging up on Carr
My Fortune colleague David Kirkpatrick is the standard-bearer for the anti-Carr crusaders. In a piece just published in Fortune, Kirkpatrick is really steamed that Carr could be so stupid as to suggest that IT doesn't matter -- even if only as a headline ploy.
Kirkpatrick thinks Carr is ignoring the "information" element of IT. His point is that because companies haven't yet begun to properly use technology to harness the information they have, IT will matter for some time to come.
As in any good intellectual debate, both writers make good points. Carr is accurately describing the technology world in the post-bubble era. Kirkpatrick proves that innovation isn't over yet.
My hunch is that prudent investors, however, will side with Carr. Blasphemous though the following may be, I've long thought that technology's best days are behind it as an investment for stock-market players.
This does not mean tech stocks are bad ideas in general. It means that it's unlikely we'll ever again see the kind of hyper-growth we witnessed in the late 1990s. Thus, as I argued last week, what makes sense is to think of tech as just another interesting industry -- one that accounts for about 10 percent of the national output -- and invest accordingly.
Does IT matter? Of course it does. Does it matter to investors as much as it did in 1996, when the greatest tech bull market in history was in front of it? No way.
Adam Lashinsky is a senior writer for Fortune magazine. Send e-mail to Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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