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Making sense of tech's winter of discontent

If you believe the stock charts, these are shaping up to be the worst of times. But then you look at the data and walk away scratching your head at the reaction.

Correction, 2:05 p.m. PST: This blog initially misstated Google's 52-week high. It is $747.

On his way to China last week, RSA's top executive, Art Coviello, stopped off in San Francisco for a meet-and-greet with customers in the financial sector. What with all the pyrotechnics on Wall Street, you'd think the banks would be cutting back spending on everything from encryption software--RSA's bread and butter--to thumb tacks.

Maybe that's happening and they're just not 'fessing up, but Coviello says he's not seeing evidence of a big pullback in technology spending.

Like most of you, I remember the near-death experience the tech business suffered through after the Internet bubble burst in 2000. Are we on the cusp of something similar? What with the subprime mess still a big black hole, Herb Greenberg and the rest of the CNBC crowd are hyperventilating with each new triple-digit loss that the worst awaits just over the horizon.

On the Nasdaq, meanwhile, the performance of the bellwether stocks this January has been simply miserable. Apple's plummeted from the $200 range to below $130 in a straight vertiginous drop. Google also has been crushed, down about $200 from its $747 52-week high. The market's been equally sour on the rest of the tech firmament. Nearly every company is being taken out to the woodshed and punished.

But at the risk of being portrayed as a clueless Pollyanna, I have to wonder whether things in tech land are as bad as the market mavens seem to suggest. In particular, I was astonished at the reaction to Intel's recent quarter. The Intel call was hardly the disaster one might assume considering the subsequent sell-off. In fact, management was relatively upbeat, albeit conservative, about the company's prospects. But against the backdrop of a jittery stock market, Wall Street was in a mood to sell first, and ask questions later.

Ditto for Apple. The company rang up banner sales but management issued cautious guidance on the conference call, and that led many to suspect the worst. The herd figured that if consumer spending slows down in a recession, there goes the market for high-priced Macs--let alone discretionary items like iPhones and iPods.

Not even a bang-up quarter from Microsoft was enough to reverse sentiment. I was looking hard for problems, but CEO Steve Ballmer has the monopoly that dare not speak its name executing nicely. Not that it mattered. Microsoft was just another technology company, and that's no advantage these days.

How long will the winter of tech's discontent continue? A colleague who understands these sorts of stock panics better than I do says it will last until it doesn't. Hardly profound, but that's more insightful than most of the drivel being spouted by the TV heads.

What's crazy is that the data to date--and I stress to date -don't suggest the tech business is on the edge of a precipice. But in this market, the mantra is, "who are you going to believe--me or your lying eyes?"