Followers of semiconductor equipment companies and fans of the Chicago Cubs might have at least one thing in common -- they always hope that next year will be the year. At least investors in ASML Holdings (NASDAQ:ASML) can look back on the fact that the last big industry upswing was only six years ago or so -- not quite as long as the Cubbies have been waiting.

The third quarter wasn't that great for ASML, but then nobody was really expecting it to be. Sales dropped about 13% as the company shipped only about half as many systems as it did in the year-ago period. Even though ASML shipped far more new systems last year, the gross margin held up reasonably well and even the operating margin improved a bit -- though some litigation-related expenses in R&D depressed the year-ago figure. Ultimately, profits improved 17% -- not bad for an equipment company that isn't yet in a cyclical upswing.

Elsewhere, there were a few bits and pieces that I believe can be read as positive signs. Management said that it's seeing a pickup in orders from Taiwan, and that jells with what Taiwan Semiconductor (NYSE:TSM), a major ASML client, has said about its spending plans. The company is making further inroads into Japan and has signed a fifth customer, a sign that perhaps the company is grabbing share from Nikon and Canon (NYSE:CAJ) on their home turf.

While management seemed pretty enthusiastic about 2006, the turnaround isn't happening just yet. Shipment guidance for the next quarter is flat relative to this quarter, and the average selling prices of the backlog don't look especially robust. Be that as it may, we're still talking about a company on pace to nearly double its free cash flow generation on an annual basis, and this isn't even an especially strong year.

I'd really like to believe ASML management when it says next year will be stronger. But on the other hand, a lot of people are worried about semiconductor companies like Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), another big client, and the general state of the computer and consumer electronics markets. Less risk-averse investors should probably go toward Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT) if they want exposure to this industry, but I'm beginning to think that ASML might be interesting in its own right. That said, any buyers will need patience. The market will swing back up someday, but I have no good idea about when that day will be.

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