Most of the focus on tech earnings this season has been on the extraordinary gains of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and even older companies like Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC). Lost a bit are the awful results of Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) and Research In Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM). Their failures can be placed at the feet of management. Their failures show that broad trends in a sector are not as important as adroit executives. Perhaps worst of all, management’s mistakes cost thousand of jobs.
The middle ground among tech companies is currently held by companies that often were most successful a decade ago. The PC-centric world favored Microsoft, Intel, and smaller rivals like AMD (NASDAQ: AMD) then. Earnings from these companies for the last quarter show that they have been able to make adaptations. AMD and Intel have focused on the rapidly growing server market, which has been lifted by the expansion of cloud computing. Microsoft’s business and server operations thrive for the same reason, but is has demonstrated other skills. Its game console business has done better than anyone would have expected. Success of its telecom forays are not assured, but its purchase of Skype and joint venture with Nokia (NYSE: NOK) have given it a fighting chance. It did not have that chance just six months ago. The chance would not exist for Microsoft if it were not for the cash balance its legacy Windows products built.
RIM and Cisco had the same advantages that Google and Apple did at one time. They were market leaders in smartphones and video delivery, respectively. RIM failed to get into the consumer market. Cisco got into too many markets at once. Cisco wanted to serve video and data at all levels — from enterprise routers to home set tops and WiFi. Cisco went too far; RIM not far enough.
If management matters, it will show up in the future results of the tech companies that have reached middle age recently. That includes Google and Intel, which have to become a wireless force as the dominance of the PC slumps. The market worries about them. Google’s shares peaked in late 2007. Interestingly, so did Intel’s. Each has a large legacy business that throws off cash. Whether that can be used effectively is as important as any challenge the companies have.
RIM and Cisco failed to leverage their balance sheets. It will only take a year or so to see if Google and Intel make the same mistake.
Douglas A. McIntyre