This article has been adapted from our sister site across the pond, Fool U.K.
With comedian Steve Martin tweeting from Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past week, you know technology is hot again -- not just because the 65-year-old is even on Twitter, but because he presumably assumes his half-million followers will appreciate geeky tweets like this: "At Vegas Consumer Electronics Show: Saw large wooden device that can fling boulders over castle walls. iPad killer."
From Twitter to the mainstream news and recent Facebook movie The Social Network, I don't remember technology getting mass attention like this since the late 1990s. And that is telling, since there are similarities between what happened then and what's brought technology back into the limelight now:
- In the mid- to late1990s, technologies such as email, Web browsing, and mobile phones went from the preserve of nerds and young people to become ubiquitous.
- In the mid- to late 2000s, technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones have gone from the preserve of nerds and young people to become ubiquitous.
Sure, Facebook and smartphones have been used by early adopters -- both businesses and individuals -- for a few years now. But as ever with technology, it's when the initial wrinkles have been ironed out and the majority of the population gets onboard that you really see how transformative a new development will be.
Out of the Windows
To my mind, momentum is being driven by the coming together of three key trends:
- Social networking: Facebook, Twitter, and the like.
- Cloud computing: using distant computers accessed through the Internet to store and process data away from your PC, perhaps without your even thinking about it (such as with Gmail or Flickr).
- Smartphones and tablets: small devices like such as the iPhone and iPad. They are effectively mini-computers, but much more user-friendly than traditional PCs.
RBC Capital Markets estimates that global smartphone shipments will top 350 million in 2011, overtaking PCs for the first time. Most of those new iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android owners will be checking Facebook and email on the go and finding fewer reasons to upgrade or even switch on their desktop computers.
This is seismic stuff. The PC isn't going to die -- especially in the workplace -- but the explosive growth phase is over.
Instead, more mobile, Internet-focused devices will dominate the action over the next decade.
ARM-ed and dangerous
A new technology landscape usually means that new companies are prospering, and this latest boom is no different.
Consider the rapid ascent of FTSE 100 member ARM Holdings
ARM's chips already dominate mobile phones and tablet devices, but the revelation that mighty Microsoft now believes it must support ARM as well as Intel
In the cloud-computing world, more and more devices are going to get smart and communicate with each other, so the total market for ARM's designs could far exceed the PC market dominated by Intel -- although ARM will only earn a tiny fraction of what Intel used to get for, say, a Pentium chip.
A third of ARM-designed chips are already used in things such as televisions and digital cameras.
The Android uprising
ARM's sexiest customer is Apple
Yet just as Apple is only one of ARM's many customers, so the Californian innovator is no longer the only credible maker of touchscreen phones and tablets.
The iPhone certainly stole a march on the likes of Nokia and Motorola -- and the iPad surprised everyone -- but Apple's rivals are fighting back. At this week's CES, companies such as LG, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and the newly spun-off Motorola Mobility are all showing off tablets running either Google's Android operating system or Microsoft's Windows 7.
The performance of Android smartphones has already hugely improved in the past six months, and in turn they're taking a larger share of the market.
According to the latest data from ComScore, Android phones are now winning 26% of the U.S. smartphone market (up from less than 20%) versus Apple's 25%, with BlackBerry maker Research In Motion in pole position, with a share in excess of 30%.
The big Apple
Apple doesn't attend CES, which gives its rivals some rare space to shine. But I doubt that Apple is too worried.
On Thursday, it overtook PetroChina to become the second-largest company in the world after ExxonMobil. Hard to believe it was only 14 years ago that CEO Steve Jobs returned to save the company he founded.
It would be going too far to suggest that Apple's world-conquering valuation is a sign of frothiness in the tech market. This company is minting money, is on a relatively modest forward P/E of 17, and is sitting on a hoard of cash.
Yet to return to my 1990s comparison, we might ask what year we're in -- 1996 or 1999?
There are certainly other ominous signs:
- Key companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn haven't floated yet, but off-market trading in their shares has already prompted some very ambitious valuations.
- Only this week, we learned that Facebook is apparently worth $50 billion, after Goldman Sachs pumped $450 million into the company on behalf of clients.
- ARM is priced at more than 50 times 2011 earnings, dropping to a still eye-watering 45 for the year to follow.
- The Nasdaq market has advanced by more than 130% since its late 2008 low, versus a mere 45% advance for the Dow Jones.
I believe this new tech boom has further to run. Many key U.S. tech shares remain on sane ratings, and for all the hoo-hah, the Nasdaq was pretty much flat over 2010.
See a stock in this story you'd like to follow? Add it to My Watchlist, which will find all of our Foolish analysis on it.
More from Fool UK's Owain Bennallack:
Google, Intel, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool has written puts on Apple. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel and has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Exxon Mobil, Google, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.