Can 3Com Party Like It's 1999?

Yes, Virginia, there really once was a time when 3Com (Nasdaq: COMS  ) was considered a viable tech stock alongside the likes of EMC (NYSE: EMC  ) , Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) , and other late-90s darlings. Then along came overvaluation, competition, erosion of demand, and erosion of any perception of market leadership.

But that's past. The question now, fellow Fools, is whether 3Com can ever have another day in the sun. At this point, I'll give it a guarded "maybe."

Although I don't believe one quarter's results tell the tale here, I wouldn't be surprised to see some folks react negatively to 3Com's third quarter. After all, (gasp! shock! horror!) it dared to miss the average revenue estimate by about 7%.

All in all, the results weren't that great. Stand-alone revenue was up 10% (again, less than expected), but the company continues to post operating loss and consume cash. Still, there were bright spots. Security revenue was up in a big way (helped by the TippingPoint acquisition), and that in turn helped boost gross margins.

The company's joint venture with China's Huawei also continues to perform well. Revenue here was up 66% from last year, the gross margin was 48% (higher than 3Com's on a stand-alone basis), and the joint venture was actually profitable. It's also important to note that 3Com acquired a controlling stake relatively recently, and will begin to consolidate results here into its financial reports.

I see two principal reasons to be optimistic about 3Com. The Huawei joint venture is the first. Huawei apparently has some respectable R&D capabilities, and the venture will benefit from low-cost manufacturing in China and 3Com's international distribution capabilities. Oh, and I'm sure it plans to sell a few products into the fast-growing Chinese market in the process.

The second reason for optimism could be the new CEO. While his background doesn't necessarily scream "surefire winner," I like what I've heard from him so far -- namely that revenue growth without profits gets you nowhere, product innovation is key, and assets should be steered toward projects with the highest realistic returns on investment.

Let's also remember that the company has a nice clean balance sheet and a fair bit of cash to boot. In fact, the stock trades for less than three times the company's per-share cash. Certainly this is a risky proposition, and I'm not suggesting that 3Com will emerge as a top networking company, but I can still see a case for the stock moving higher from here.

For more networking Foolishness:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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