Motorola sees Symbol at heart of goals

Motorola is getting a lot for its US$4 billion buyout of Symbol Technologies. But whether that includes a future for what Motorola executives call enterprise mobility remains to be seen.

The acquisition, announced this month, gives Motorola access to a blue-chip list of customers in key vertical markets, where Symbol’s diverse product portfolio has been strong. Those products include rugged handheld computers, bar code readers, wireless point-of-sale systems, wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure, and more recently RFID readers and tags.

Those products, and their enterprise success, are the fruit of a sustained, muscular R&D effort, which has resulted in 910 U.S. patents and 680 international patents for Symbol. Motorola executives cited the patents as a key attraction.

The deal caps a dramatic turnaround for Symbol, which saw its reputation tarnished by years of losses, mismanagement and scandal. A pack of former top executives were indicted in 2004 for accounting fraud.

“Symbol today is not the Symbol of three years ago,” says Abner Germanow, director of enterprise network research for IDC. “Three years ago, it was a financial mess, their support services were a disaster area, and their products were old.” Today, he says, the company is profitable, the support services are world class and the product lines have been refreshed.

Symbol in its most recent fiscal year reported revenue of US$1.77 billion, virtually flat compared with the $1.73 billion in fiscal 2004. Profits were hit hard: $32.2 million, down from $81.8 million.

Motorola plans to marry Symbol’s expertise in devices, device management and short-range wireless networking, and blend it with Motorola’s wide-area technologies, such as mesh networking, two-way radios, cellular networking and soon Wi-MAX wireless broadband.

“They have an [enterprise] customer list I’d die for,” says Motorola Chairman and CEO Ed Zander, speaking at a press conference. “We can pitch them, with our [telecom] carrier partners, a total mobility solution across the enterprise.”

“We are very bullish on the complementarities and the integration of these technologies,” says John DeFeo, corporate vice-president for enterprise products in Motorola’s Enterprise Mobility Solutions. “This is a vision [of network convergence] that’s becoming more and more real every day.” “Symbol embodies all of Motorola’s enterprise aspirations,” DeFeo says.

But in the short term, those aspirations will yield to more modest and immediately practical aims, IDC’s Germanow says. Motorola can bring WAN technology expertise quickly to a wide range of Symbol products, he says.

The first evidence of that is likely to be what Symbol calls its RF Switch, announced earlier this year as part of a new wireless architecture that can support multiple radio technologies. The switch was originally scheduled to appear at year-end, supporting WLAN and RFID, and working with 250 access points, compared with the 48 supported by Symbol’s flagship WS5100 WLAN switch. Later, the new architecture could let Symbol add modules for other wireless options, including Wi-MAX, cellular interfaces and short-range ZigBee sensor networks.

“The success [of the deal] really depends on how much autonomy Motorola provides Symbol for their product design,” says Rachna Ahlawat, research director of enterprise reporting at Gartner. “Symbol still needs to do a lot of catch-up: they need bigger [WLAN] controllers for enterprise wireless deployments.”

A key Symbol strength is its device management, she says. This month, Symbol is scheduled to introduce a revamped management application for its WLAN product line, incorporating for the first time radio spectrum monitoring and management.

“Symbol has done much more than other vendors in integrating and managing every tag or device that you connect [wirelessly] to your infrastructure,” Ahlawat says.

One potential problem is how well Motorola integrates the two companies, Germanow says. “Motorola isn’t known for a lot of mergers, and this is one of the biggest in its history,” he says. “They need to make sure they don’t lose the momentum that Symbol has started to generate over the last few quarters.”

“I’m not worried about it at all,” says Marc Rothman, senior vice-president of finance and business development for Motorola’s Networks & Enterprise business, which will now include Symbol.

“We’ve done an outstanding job of portfolio management, including merging two big divisions [to create the Networks & Enterprise group].”

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