Intel alone in seeing glass half full

Intel's Craig Barrett may be predicting an imminent PC industry upturn, but what does he know that Compaq, HP and IBM don't?

The PC industry has bottomed out and is poised for a rebound, says Intel 's chief executive Craig Barrett, who expressed his optimism during a business tour through Asia this week.

His bright outlook stands in contrast to the dour forecasts presented in recent weeks by such computing giants as Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which projected that PC sales would remain flat and possibly even worsen in coming months.

"The computer industry has bottomed out. That in itself tells you that you're looking at when it's going to take off," Craig Barrett told Reuters today in Penanag, Malaysia, where Intel has a large testing and assembly plant.

Earlier this week, the executive projected that sales will begin to rise soon. "We anticipate the normal seasonal up-tick in the second half -- the back-to-school portion and then the holiday buying season at the end of the year," Barrett told CNN during a stopover in Tokyo.

But other high-tech leaders apparently don't share Barrett's optimism.

Last week, HP Chairman Carly Fiorina warned that economies were weakening around the globe, spurring her company to again lower earnings projections and to initiate further operating cuts, including plans to cut 6,000 more jobs. "I do not expect a second-half recovery in 2001," Fiorina said at the time.

Compaq chairman Michael Capellas offered a similar assessment earlier in the week. "The market has weakened in Europe and other parts of the world," he said during a conference call with market analysts. "We also anticipate increasing weakness in Latin America."

IBM chairman Louis Gerstner, in announcing the company's earnings on 18 July , predicted that demand for PCs would remain sluggish, and that sales were also being hurt as the value of foreign currencies declined.

"We saw ongoing weakness in PCs and hard-disk drives [in the second quarter], and we continued to be hurt by the negative effects of currency translations," he said. "We expect that these factors will continue to work against us in the second half of this year. Additionally, we are now seeing signs of slowing in our microelectronics business as our OEM customers reduce purchases."

While Intel is looking for back-to-school sales to spur demand over the next few weeks, analysts say they don't expect sales to rise until the end of the year.

"I think you have a potential for a fourth-quarter pickup, but I don't see it happening in the third quarter," said Andy Neff, an analyst with Bear Stearns in New York. "I think the third quarter will be a challenge."

One factor that's expected to undermine PC sales in the coming months is what industry insiders are calling the "XP stall", where computer buyers delay purchases while awaiting the 25 October release of Microsoft 's new operating system, Windows XP.

"That clearly will impact sales" in the coming weeks, Neff said. "It's new, it's different and people will be waiting for it."

Even if computer sales do pick up in the second half of the year, which is what traditionally has happened in the industry, the upswing may not last, said Richard Chu, an analyst with S.G. Cowen in Boston.

"The reality is that the market is very, very mature," Chu said. "If we do have a second-half pickup, that doesn't mean it will continue into 2002."

Merrill Lynch also sounded a hopeful note about the semiconductor market on Wednesday, saying that it may have finally hit bottom.

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