10 signs you're in a tech bubble

Welcome back to 1998

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From Wall St to Silicon Valley, experienced finanical types and entrepreneurs are privately conceding the obvious: we're in a tech bubble. The only doubts are over whether we are in 1998 or 1999 again.

Certainly, we're in the middle of one the longest running bull markets for sometime. Just three of the past 15 bull markets have lasted longer than five years - we're currently at year 4.5. Others are not quite sure where we are, or are in plain denial.

In case you're stuck, here's The Register's 10 tell-tale signs of a tech bubble - break glass in an emergency.

  • Companies launch frivolous products
    In 1999 and 2000 it was email appliances, good for nothing else but...email. This week Palm launched Foleo - a sort of smart phone and laptop device that actually lacks the functionality of either and that raised serious questions over Palm's future. Microsoft also unveiled Surface, more touch-screen technology - only for the tabletop - while struggling to deliver new versions of its core Windows client and server products.

  • Loads of money
    Don't mistake the paucity of IPO as an indicator this is not a bubble. IPO was the hallmark of 1999 to 2001, but we've since had Sarbanes Oxley, which increased the cost and administrative burden of going public. Far better to remain private these days. The money's still there, though, just coming to market in different ways, via: buyouts (Madison Dearborn's $7.3bn bid for CDW for example), M&A (the first nine months of 2006 saw more activity than the first nine months of 2001, itself a record not passed between 2001 and 2006, with a large number bids being unsolicited), and VCs (Q1 saw $1.3bn invested in internet start-ups, a 31 per cent increase over the fourth quarter of 2006 and the highest quarterly level for five years, according to PwC MoneyTree).

  • Unsavory trading practices
    Back then a swathe of merchant banks came under investigation for preferential stock allocation ahead of taking investments public, unloading bum stock on unsuspecting members of the public, back dating of options, setting up ghost companies (Enron), and misreporting of expenses (Worldcom). Today, it's insider trading, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

  • Preaching to the converted
    In 1999 and 2000 tech companies were evangelizing the dot-com, e- and m-commerce future to...other tech companies. Sun typified this, claiming to have "put the dot into dot com." Today, the same tiny band of open source and on-demand start ups - billed as the "third wave" of open source and on-demand - are trooping from conference to conference, having been drafted in by organizers to tell their attendees (also entrepreneurs and start-ups) that open source and on-demand are the future.

  • Bogus numbers
    Remember Forrester, IDC, and others pumping out vastly differing and hugely inflated numbers of ecommerce shoppers by year 200X? This time, it's social networks, with un-audited numbers of users. Vendors are also jumping in: Microsoft has bandied numbers for its Hotmail, IM, and Xbox population intended to coax partners into turning their hand to applications and services serving Office Live that generously re-define the words "ball" and "park".

  • We're still trying to figure it out
    In 1998 start-ups were happy to burn through wads of cash or lose money on each online transaction because it was the done thing - Amazon, the dot-com poster child, wasn't making money so it was OK for others to also not make money. Today, even open source companies regarded as successful admit they are still "learning" the ropes or struggling to convert users of their free offerings into paying consumers. Companies are also slowly burning through millions of dollars in VC funding, with no business goal other than to hit hundreds of thousands of page views and hope advertising will follow.

  • Community land grab
    During the dot-com boom, the rush was to scoop up shoppers and dump them online. Analysts and consultants also tried to convert bricks and mortar operations into etraders through B2B networks and virtual shopping. Today? Developers, developers, developers...Facebook, Salesforce.com, SugarCRM are feeling flush enough to channel marketing dollars into offline events to entice developers into their communities, building applications, services, and plug-ins that attract users.

  • If something's worth building once, it's worth building again and again
    Seven years back, online trading communities and emarkets mushroomed but ultimately fizzled through lack of participation. Today search, social networks, and maps are mushrooming. One thing remains constant - failure to participate: those bothering to contribute content are vastly outnumbered by those searching, viewing, and downloading material.

  • Feel good branding and advertising
    With constraints loosened along with corporate purse strings, marketing is ascending from selling boring old products to peddling concepts and vision. Whereas seven years back Sun claimed its servers put the "dot in dot com", today the message is "sharing" and how to become a useful person in a future United Colors of Benetton "participatory age". As with 2001, though, the key concept remains the same: sell more Sun hardware. Back then, one leading telecoms supplier sold global unity through a TV spot with The Beatles' "Come Together".

  • Today, Cisco's not selling boring old network attached boxes with blinking lights that connect to the internet, it is selling "The Human Network". And Business Objects has been throwing money around like water on a re-branding that yielded a colorful bouncy ball logo, a rather intimidating new website straight from the design department of the Death Star, and aspirational slogan promising "24 hours of light", all intended to help execs forget that they only sell business inteligence software for the enterprise and don't provide a cure for the world's ills.

And finally:

  • Grown men riding to work on silver pedal and motorized scooters: ubiquitous in, and around, down town San Francisco during 2000. Extinct between the years 2001 and 2005. Resurrected during early 2006, and once again becoming a daily occurrence in 2007. ®

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