The first faint scents of a recovery are in the air, and niche software vendors are straining at the leash.

This has been a super-tough year for tech investments of all kinds. The big IT analyst firms kicked off 2009 with dismal forecasts for the IT market and have been revising them downward ever since. The numbers turned negative even for the software segment, historically the most resilient. Gartner's June forecast for worldwide IT spending has software spend contracting by 1.6 percent for 2009; Forrester's global IT outlook (also published in June) is even bleaker, predicting a whopping 8.2 percent decline in software spend for the year.

But the worst may soon be over, the analyst houses agree. The decline in the software sector has almost stabilized, according to Gartner, and the firm predicts a return to positive growth of 3.2 percent in 2010 -- pretty anemic, but at least it's in the right direction. Forrester expects a turnaround in the overall IT market starting in Q4 as businesses realize that they overreacted in the first quarter. The U.S. market will lead, with Europe and Asia turning the corner in the first quarter of 2010.

This is good news for every one of the firms we list here in our annual roundup of best-of-breed software vendors. There's good news for buyers, too. The bargains are still out there, for now. The products and providers that survive in this frigid climate will be around for some time to come as the economy thaws. And the recession may actually have stepped up the pace of innovation; just as the features of Web 2.0 were forged in the 2001--2003 tech meltdown, expect the next wave of groundbreaking technologies to emerge from the current downturn.