The technology sector is an inescapably huge investment opportunity for both corporate America and Wall Street. It is the largest single segment of the market, eclipsing all others (including the financial sector and the industrials sector). More than anything, technology companies are associated with innovation and invention. Investors expect considerable expenditures on R&D by technology companies, but also a steady stream of progress and innovative new products and services.

The Importance of the Tech Industry

These products and services are then disseminated throughout the economy; there is no sector of the modern economy that technology does not touch and that does not rely upon the technology sector to improve quality, productivity, and/or profitability.

For more information, check out "Who are Apple's (AAPL) main competitors in the tech industry?"

Tech is also notable for its rampant competition and rapid obsolescence cycles. Although the examples have been used so often they have become cliché, it is nevertheless still a fact that computers used to occupy entire rooms, 640K of RAM was perfectly adequate for a personal computer, and cell phones were heavy bricks the size of shoes. With that constant drive to adapt and overcome competitors with new products, no company can rest easy for long in the tech sector.

This rapid cycle of obsolescence means that winners and losers in technology do not necessarily maintain those positions for long.Microsoft was founded in 1975 and more than a few tech writers have already penned its obituary as a leader in the field. Likewise, Apple was left for dead in the 1990s due to the dominance of the WinTel duopoly, but sprang back to vigor with its innovative smartphone products. Moreover, that dynamism and impressive growth make technology a must-consider sector for virtually every equity investor.

Breaking It Down

Within the huge and unwieldy world of tech, it is possible to look at four key "mega sectors:" semiconductors, software, networking and hardware. While not every tech company fits into one of these four mega sectors, the majority do, and it is a useful way to talk about the sector as a whole.

Semiconductors

Semiconductors, chips in common parlance, underlie virtually everything else in technology. The semiconductor industry is a huge market on its own, but it is thought to enable four times more in physical products that rely upon those semiconductors. Factor in all of the other types of products and services that depend upon semiconductors at least implicitly (what could software do without a chip-using computer or phone?), and it is arguably the axis around which technology spins.

There are numerous types and categories of semiconductors. Chips can be divided into analog, digital and mixed-signal circuits, but it is more common to discuss chips in terms of their ultimate function – like power management, microprocessors, micro controllers, sensors and amplifiers.

Although semiconductors are ubiquitous, the industry is highly cyclical and follows a boom-bust cycle of ordering and capacity construction. Despite that cyclicality, what matters most for companies in the semiconductor industry is the ability to design superior products (more features per chip, less power consumption, more reliability, etc.) at the best price.

Software

Without software, nothing much happens in the modern world. Computers are everywhere and represent critical components of everything from pacemakers to cars, but none of those computers do anything without software. As such, it is not surprising that software is a huge industry as well – on the order of $300 billion or more.

Software is not noticeably cyclical in its own right, apart from the broader economic cycles that dominate business. When recessions arrive, companies typically curtail their information technology (IT) budgets and reduce software purchases, and the opposite is true when recoveries begin.

Software requires virtually no infrastructure and is difficult to protect via patents or copyright to any effective degree. Consequently, tiny start-ups with innovative new products can appear virtually overnight and with no warning. Though a software provider's reputation and ability to provide support after the sale are competitive factors and potential barriers, this is nevertheless one of the most fertile categories for new company formation and new product introductions.

Cloud computing, for example, allows several companies to offer software as an on-demand application (typically through the internet or a closed network) as opposed to code actually residing on an individual customer's servers and hard drives. This "software as a service" has major implications to the development, distribution and functionality of a multi-hundred billion-dollar industry in between software providers and the end user.

Networking and Internet

Networking, great and small, is arguably the biggest tech innovation since the microchip. The creation of networks has not only significantly improved efficiency within companies, but the internet itself (one gigantic network) has facilitated major changes to commerce and has underpinned entirely new business models like store-free retailing and software as a service. Networking is in many respects a sub-sector of the other mega-sectors; it requires hardware (which require chips) and software to function. That said, it is large enough and important enough to stand on its own.

Broadly speaking, investors can divide their attention between those companies focusing on the consumer (B2C, business-to-consumer) and those that focus on "behind the scenes" business conducted between businesses (B2B, business-to-business). In many cases, though, companies like Amazon, eBay and Google blur those lines.

Back in 2010, U.S. retail e-commerce alone was estimated to be worth something in the neighborhood of $150 billion a year in revenue, and that did not include the value from electronic funds transfer, marketing, data interchange or online supply chain management. In fact, some estimates suggested that worldwide B2B revenue may have been in excess of $3 trillion a year.

Hardware

Hardware does not get the same amount of respect that it enjoyed in prior decades, but it is still a key part of the technology world. Although software is increasingly replicating the functions of many pieces of hardware, there is still a major market for many types of hardware and the sector is not as obsolete as many believe. Company-wide networks and the Internet itself only work because of a huge backbone of equipment, and software is still ultimately just a set of instructions; there has to be a "something" to be instructed and to carry out those instructions.

Computers have evolved into a stunning array of devices, from computers that help a car change gears to phones that can essentially replicate and replace many of the functions of personal computers. New exciting products, such as cellular phones, can revolutionize consumer hardware, while the intense user demands for information technology can fuel ongoing innovation in routers, servers and data storage devices.

Getting a bit more specific, hardware can be broken down into many sub-sectors, including communications equipment, computers and peripherals, networking equipment, technical instruments and consumer electronics. Unfortunately, investors may find some of these segments to be arbitrary or incomplete; do advanced electronic defense systems belong in the traditional aerospace/defense category, or are they technology hardware? Consequently, investors should not rely too much on labels when deciding what is or is not to be considered "hardware."

What Investors Should Watch

One of the other basic truths of equities is that tech stocks frequently sport higher premiums than almost any other market category. In theory, this high level of valuation is recognition of the above-average growth rates that successful technology companies post. In practice, though, even unsuccessful companies can carry robust valuations right up until the point where the market gives up on those growth prospects.

Technology also has an above average number of public companies that do not yet produce profits or cash flow. The absence of a track record forces investors to use more guesswork when building discounted cash flow valuation models.

Investors can take some encouragement that research and diligence pay off in the tech sector. Understanding a company's products (especially their advantages and disadvantages) and those of its rivals can produce an investable edge. Clearly, this is a sector where the details matter.

Whether or not investors should concern themselves with valuations in the tech sector is a subject of ongoing debate. Certainly, there are investors who have done well by following the growth and investing in category leaders (or emerging threats to the status quo) and nimbly moving from company to company irrespective of valuation. On the other hand, investors who are not so nimble, as they believe or misjudge the competition, find themselves holding very expensive stocks with no underpinning of value to support them.

The Bottom Line

Many investors stay well clear of the entire space (Warren Buffett is a well-known example) and regard it as impenetrable and irrational. Given the pervasiveness of technology, however, this is a significantly self-limiting view that cuts off one of the most dynamic and powerful engines to modern economies. A better compromise, then, might be to simply invest the time in careful research and self-education and use those insights to invest where the theses and valuations make sense.

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