Founded in 1984 by a pair of Stanford academics who commercialized routers, Cisco Systems (‘Cisco‘) has for years been synonymous with networking equipment. The company leveraged the growth of IT to become one of the largest publicly-traded Silicon Valley tech companies. However, in the past few years, Cisco’s overall revenue growth went to zero as its legacy networking business became increasingly commoditized. Like other longstanding U.S. tech giants such as IBM and HP, Cisco is busy making diversifying bets. Cisco currently has a market cap of $170 billion.
Via R&D spend, venture investments and numerous acquisitions, Cisco is fighting to pivot away from its declining network switching businesses towards 3 newer IT markets that it believes will grow by double-digit percentage rates for years to come: cloud, security and IoT. However, in all of them Cisco is mainly viewed as a peripheral player instead of a pioneer (this is despite the fact that Cisco coined the term IoT). To change this perception and push itself into a ‘value-add’ IoT segment, in July of this year Cisco acquired Jasper Technologies (‘Jasper’) for $1.4 billion; Jasper is a software platform that enables businesses to see, manage and analyze their IoT devices in real time. Jasper has over 3,000 customers worldwide in a multiple industries. The business has a few hundred employees and run-rate revenues of $125 million (growing by double-digits). Jasper has a SaaS revenue model, selling access to its cloud-based Control Center software and billing clients on a monthly per-device basis. A high-profile use case of the Jasper platform is the Amazon Kindle, where Jasper helped Amazon seamlessly enable e-book data transmission over 3G GSM to Kindle devices across a matrix of 30+ countries and dozens of telecom network providers.
In the brief video below, Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins talks about Cisco’s IoT strategy and how Jasper fits in it.
In a second video, Jasper’s product is showcased.
In mid-2015, in the first leadership handover for many years, company veteran Chuck Robbins succeeded John Chambers as Cisco’s CEO. So far, Gartner assigns Robbins’ current strategic direction a ‘strong positive’ grade. Robbins doubled-down on Cisco’s new focus on cloud/security/IoT, and the Jasper acquisition was one of his first major moves. More controversially, Robbins also laid off 14,000 (20%) out of Cisco’s 70,000 employees globally, mainly in Cisco’s legacy businesses.
Today, Cisco still generates only 1/4th of its revenues from software & services (and the majority of service revenue relates to servicing the switching and routing hardware). Cisco’s legacy architectural choices and ingrained perception by CIOs as a provider of hardware (vs ‘value-add software) create formidable challenges. Even the Jasper acquisition – whilst it appears to make strategic sense and has garnered analyst praise – is unlikely to yield conclusive results until years into the future.
Just as Cisco’s lucrative legacy business became increasingly competitive and challenged, it is likely that in its attempt to shift to a different S-curve, Cisco will run into new competition. Many other major IT vendors name IoT as a priority area, and some industrial majors (e.g. GE) do too. No analyst has yet been able to make credible, widely-accepted predictions about which player will emerge as a massive IoT winner, how large the space will be, or what it will look like.
On paper, Cisco has a number of strategic & financial options on how to proceed in this dynamic, competitive environment.
- Option 1: more of the same, i.e. continue to support the organic and inorganic growth of its strategy; continue to allocate the ~$10 billion of annual free cash flow from its core operations towards a mix of small-to-mid-sized acquisitions and stock buybacks.
- Option 2: make substantially more aggressive, more transformative acquisitions in the software/IoT/security space, eschewing buybacks and even tapping into Cisco’s $30 billion net cash position. As an example, Cisco can also shift verticals and acquire IoT chip / RFID players (e.g. Impinj or Synopsys), or security/firewall vendors (e.g. Palo Alto Networks).
- Option 3: abandon the current diversifying strategy and instead merge with an old-tech competitor (HP) or partner (such as Ericsson) in an attempt to create value via cost synergies and further entrench itself with CIOs.
For the time being, Cisco will probably continue with Option 1. However, history is littered with the names of former tech giants that gradually faded into obscurity by failing to aggressively reinvent themselves. Could more drastic moves (Option 2) be warranted? It is unclear. Radical moves are risky: in 2011, HP’s board fired CEO Leo Apotheker after he proposed completely exiting the legacy PC/laptop business and also executed a (in retrospect) disastrous $12 billion acquisition of a big data software vendor Autonomy. Whatever Cisco chooses, it has its work cut out.
 17 November 2016, Bloomberg
 JPMorgan research
 Company, Cowen research
 Gartner’s vendor rating for Cisco