Wall Street Beat: Salesforce, HP Weigh in as Tech Steadies

Solid earnings from Salesforce.com and Hewlett-Packard helped investor confidence in the tech arena this week, as talks between Microsoft and Yahoo suggest that the Internet sector will be reshaped.

On Thursday traders cheered Salesforce's earnings report, released after the market closed Wednesday.

Salesforce, one of the first movers in the SaaS (software as a service) arena, continues to lay claim as a leader in hosted ERP (enterprise resource planning) offerings -- and has the sales figures to back it up. The company has momentum. It said that in the first quarter, it earned US$9.6 million on sales of $247.6 million, compared to a profit of $730,000 on revenue of $162.4 million a year earlier. The company also raised its profit and revenue forecast for the year.

On a conference call, CEO Marc Benioff said the company is larger than other SaaS companies and is growing faster. While this may be true, Salesforce at some point is bound to face competition from Microsoft and other major players as they move business applications to the Web. For now, Benioff says that Microsoft does not appear to be going after the type of customers Salesforce is wooing. Salesforce also appears to be achieving some success in larger enterprises, and analysts note that its Force.com platform could help it address a market beyond CRM (customer relationship management).

Jefferies analyst Ross MacMillan upgraded Salesforce from "hold" to "buy" on the news, and traders boosted company shares to close at $66.31, up by $3.65 for the day Thursday.

HP on Tuesday also released a strong earnings report. There were no real surprises, since the company preannounced the top-line figures a week earlier, when it revealed that it was buying services vendor EDS for $13.9 billion. Boosted by strong laptop sales, total revenue for the quarter was $28.3 billion, up by 11 percent from the same quarter in 2007. Net income was $2.06 billion, an increase from $1.78 billion.

There were a few dark clouds in the report. CEO Mark Hurd said the U.S. market was "spotty" during the quarter, though there was solid demand for some products including storage, high-end servers and printers. Citigroup Global Markets Equity Research noted that X86 sales were not as high as its analysts expected. However, Citigroup noted, PC unit growth is exceeding industry average, thanks to laptops. The big question is how HP will absorb EDS. Wall Street looks favorably on Hurd, thanks to his track record, so for now most observers seem to have faith in HP's ability to execute on strategy. HP shares dropped Wednesday with the overall market, and rose by $0.10 to close at $44.90 on Thursday.

The possible acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft continues to cast a shadow on the Internet sector. With billionaire investor Carl Icahn trying to replace the Yahoo board in order to get a deal done, and Microsoft last week saying it was renewing talks with the Internet company, the saga continues. Microsoft's brief statement last week, where it said it had "raised with Yahoo an alternative that would involve a transaction with Yahoo but not an acquisition of all of Yahoo," has the industry on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile, the pressure to do a deal is only increasing. A comScore survey released Thursday reported that Google's share of search is growing. ComScore said that in April, Google expanded its share of all U.S. searches to 61.6 percent, up from 59.8 percent in March. It was the only online company to increase search share. Yahoo ranked second with 20.4 percent, followed by Microsoft with 9.1 percent.

After climbing out of a trough in March, the Nasdaq -- home to many tech bellwethers -- stalled this month, as rising oil prices put pressure across all sectors of the economy. After hitting $135 per barrel overnight, a trading record, oil prices declined a bit Thursday, bringing some relief to tech company shares.

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