So far so good over at 3Com

Editor’s Angle

Forgive and forget.

That’s what 3Com Corp. is hoping buyers of enterprise network gear will say when they think of the company, now that it has once again reversed its strategy and is setting it sights back on its former big-business customers.

You’ll recall that in March 2000, 3Com left the high-end router business, leaving loyalist customers to rethink their network buildout strategies. For many, that rethinking led them to Cisco Systems’ doorstep and the adoption of that company’s market-share-gobbling products.

Now 3Com, bruised and bloodied by three years of tumultuous market conditions, wants back in. Last month, the campaign to conquer some of the ground they abandoned began in earnest, with the release of the Router 5000 series and a management app called Network Administrator.

Courting the very market from which it turned away must make 3Com feel a bit like a returning husband standing on a spurned wife’s doorstep, ringing the doorbell and holding his breath. So far, the company is saying the right things to help ensure a reconciliation takes place.

First, they’re offering what appear to be impressive pieces of gear. With some beefy memory muscle preinstalled, a standards-based approach that allows for interoperability with non-3Com products and quality of service features for prioritizing IP traffic, the new line is certain to get at least a look from even the most embittered of former customers.

Second, the company’s cautiously confident tone seems to be hitting the right note. In a statement last month, CEO Bruce Claflin sounded refreshingly realistic when he said, “While it would be premature to suggest an industry or company turnaround, we are encouraged” by the firm’s new products and partnerships. To come out blustering about how perfect his company is would sound hollow to those clients who know all too well that it isn’t. Shifting strategies and then shifting them back to where they began is never an easy thing for a company to pull off, but the 3Com braintrust at least seems to be acknowledging that their task won’t be easy.

Third, while 3Com is sounding realistic, it isn’t sounding wimpy either. It’s hard to hear an executive speak for more than five minutes without mentioning Cisco, and how 3Com will beat its biggest rival on price and performance. Such directness has a good chance of resonating with customers.

Despite such positives, 3Com’s road back to the enterprise won’t be easy. All the installed Cisco gear out there is humming along nicely, and it will take some stellar sales calls to convince many firms to swap it out for the 5000 series. For a lot of customers, trusting a firm that flip-flopped is just too dicey a proposition. It might take two years before that trust is re-earned.

If 3Com keeps making the right moves, however, we could eventually end up with a more competitive network equipment market – something every network manager should welcome.