Behind Tech’s Shine, Some Warnings Signs Appear
Back then, among the best customers for the established chip firms were start-ups, which had more dreams than revenue. As the start-ups faltered, the chip firms were imperiled. The storm lasted for years.
“These are all real companies now, with real customers,” Mr. Munster said. “People are willing to look past a few bumpy months.”
Even if the problems do not linger, they are a reminder that demand is not eternal. That seems to be what happened with smartphones, which use multiple varieties of chips to run software, process data and connect to cellular networks.
Consider Apple, which gave a muted forecast in October for the holiday season and followed up early last month with its first full-fledged revenue warning in 16 years. The iPhone maker faces stiff competition and slumping demand in China. Total smartphone shipments fell 15 percent in that country in the fourth quarter, according to research firm Canalys.
Michael Wolf, who surveys consumers annually about their technology and media usage for his management consulting firm Activate, said people seem to be shifting to lower-priced phone models and cheaper service plans. But he said demand seems strong for digital subscription services like Netflix, video games, online advertising and business-to-business sales for companies like Microsoft.
“From all of our research, I don’t see some general consumer malaise,” Mr. Wolf said.
Yet several other businesses appear to be softening as well, including the market for server systems used by cloud service operators, including Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Sales of high-priced chips for such hardware have driven profits for companies like Intel and Nvidia, but they now say that equipment buyers for data centers have turned cautious.
“Cloud service providers shifted from building capacity to absorbing capacity,” Robert Swan, who was then Intel’s chief financial officer and acting chief executive, said on a conference call after Intel released its fourth-quarter results. (On Thursday, Mr. Swan became Intel’s chief executive.)