PTC, Dassault Systèmes (DS) and ANSYS report third quarter earnings over the next ten days, so it’s time for a preview. Each company has kept a tight lid on things, so only insiders know what will be reported but we can look to other company’s reports for prognosticating clues.

IBM reported that business is picking up, as companies finally loosed the strings on previously delayed IT spending in advance of a wider recovery. IBM did, however, report that the level of signed contracts slipped 7 per cent in the quarter, which investment analysts took to mean that any recovery is still in the early stages. Another case: AVEVA, the only engineering software company to say anything recently, indicated that existing projects continued to support modest near-term optimism even though sales to large new capital projects are stalled by global uncertainty. Stalled — not cancelled.

Bottom line: There’s cause for cautious optimism as delayed technology spending may be pulled into 2009 rather than returned to corporate coffers for 2010. Too, the sense of impending recovery may lead some manufacturers to ramp up production in advance of consumer demand — all good for engineering software suppliers.

Did any of this optimism translate into increased revenue in the third quarter? The summer quarter is typically the weakest for all of the companies we cover. It’s vacation season, economic data released earlier in the summer in the US was gloomy and no great technology innovations led to major hardware upgrades, which would require buying new software. But it’s also PTC’s fiscal fourth quarter which means that sales incentives kick in and spur the company to better performance than its peers. PTC had guided to total revenue of $240 million, which would be a hefty 20% drop from a year ago but a sequential recovery to 10% growth. Continuing to lead the way will likely be license revenue, typically up 30% or so from the June quarter to take advantage of year-end bargaining.

DS guided investors to revenue of about 292 million euros, a decline of about 8% from a year ago. This would be a steeper decline than is typical for DS’s summer quarter and will likely be due to the very low proportion of new license revenue and which leads to lowered periodic revenue in following periods. In Q2 2009 new license revenue was 26% of total software revenue for DS; it’s typically closer to 35%. But this, too, is improving, as it was up a few points in Q2 2009 over Q1 2009.

ANSYS, finally, has so many moving parts that it’s hard to see what will win out. On the one hand, the outlook for mainstream CAE software sales is solid; it appears less affected by economic turmoil than other parts of the engineering software world. On the other hand, ANSYS’ Ansoft acquisition has been beaten up by problems in the electronic sector, causing it to underperform all expectations. The company guided to revenue of around $126 million, which would be an on-par sequential performance (when comparables aren’t skewed by acquisitions) but still well below typical year-over year growth. ANSYS seems to be holding its own, likely capitalizing on the uncertainty surrounding MSC’s ownership during the summer.

This year, it’s all about the hockey stick recovery. Revenue is still down around 10% from last year, but with every quarter an improvement over the prior, the end to the downturn seem to be in sight. Look for PTC to release information after the closing bell on Wall Street on Tuesday and hold an earnings call on Wednesday; DS reports on Thursday and ANSYS on November 5.