* IBM, Intel, Apple, Microsoft report next week
* Cloud computing seen as big driver in down economy
* PC sales limp along, hurts Microsoft, hardware makers
By Bill Rigby and Noel Randewich
Oct 14 (Reuters) - Big U.S. Internet computing companies should outshine their plainer PC cousins when earnings season kicks off next week, as corporations and fast-growing Web players dramatically accelerate their pace of hardware spending.
Corporations are increasingly turning to new technology to make themselves more productive in a downtrodden global economy. Meanwhile, a social networking and e-commerce boom is spurring massive outlays on the giant server factories that power Internet computing.
That’s good news for Intel Corp , which is supplying more of its microchips direct to companies building their own servers, and firms like EMC Corp and VMware whose businesses are integral to the storage and transmission of remote data, known as “cloud computing”.
But it is less of a boon for traditional hardware makers such as Dell Inc and Hewlett Packard Co , which find themselves selling PCs at low margins and struggling to cope with an accelerating migration to smartphones and tablets.
“The area of strength is still data centers, the cloud,” said Kevin Cassidy, chip analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. “You have Facebook building out their data centers ... five football fields large.”
Facebook, like online leaders Amazon.com and China’s Baidu , is buying masses of equipment to fill two major data centers in Oregon and North Carolina, but going straight to component makers like Intel for parts, rather than buying whole servers from HP or IBM .
“It’s server demand, specifically emerging-market server demand,” said Evercore Partners analyst Patrick Wang, identifying growth areas. “Companies tied to the cloud and data centers are doing relatively better, there’s no question.”
Apple Inc , which reports on Tuesday, continues to defy the economy and astound Wall Street by luring ever more consumers to buy its newest gadgets.
But most other hardware companies are limping along, with little sign of a revival ahead.
Worldwide PC sales barely rose more than 3 percent last quarter over last year’s numbers, according to the major research firms, as consumers stick with old machines or buy smartphones and tablets instead.
Gartner last month cut its annual PC sales growth forecast to 3.8 percent, down from its previous projection of 9.3 percent.
“I would not want to be in the hardware business right now,” said Michael Yoshikami, CEO of fund manager YCMNET Advisors. “Cloud companies are going to continue to accelerate, but PC companies generally are going to continue to suffer.”
The knock-on effect hurts Intel’s traditional business of supplying chips for PCs, but it especially hits Microsoft Corp , which still relies on PC sales to keep its core Windows and Office products growing, despite making recent inroads into the cloud market with its server software and Azure developer platform.
“I expect little or no growth from the consumer and I just want to know that companies are still spending for the refurbishment of the existing PC fleet,” said Kim Forrest, senior analyst at money manager Fort Pitt Capital Group, on Microsoft’s outlook.
“If you are not hiring people, you don’t need to buy that extra PC. If it’s still kind of working, you’ll suffer through till the company has more money.”
Wall Street is expecting a modest 9 percent rise in IBM’s quarterly net profit when it reports on Monday, and a 6 percent rise from Microsoft on Thursday. Intel, reporting on Tuesday, is expected to post a 12 percent increase.
Apple, launching sales of its newest iPhone on Friday, is expected to post a whopping 57 percent jump in net profit.
Only the smaller cloud-focused tech companies look close to rivaling that kind of growth rate.
VMware, the small but fast-growing leader in projecting or “virtualizing” operating systems onto computers via the Internet, also reports earnings on Monday, with analysts’ predicting a 30 percent jump in net profit.
“VMware is making a legitimate move to become the next major enterprise software stack,” said Jefferies & Co analyst Ross MacMillan, in a research note to clients earlier this month, putting a “buy” recommendation on the stock.
“It is a bold strategy, but one with significant rewards if successful,” said MacMillan.
The world’s biggest data storage equipment company, EMC, which owns the majority of VMware, reports on Tuesday, with analysts expecting a 27 percent jump in net profit.
“I think companies with higher exposure to the cloud will do better,” said Cassidy at Stifel Nicolaus, citing small newcomers like Mellanox Technologies Ltd , which builds high-end networks connecting servers and storage devices.
“You build these new high-speed servers and you need to have highways or networks that keep them connected at higher speeds.”