Feeds

3Com - a company built on ether

Master of technologies that vanished

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

The focus now was on the bits that make networks work - bridges, routers switches, and hubs. The company also went on an acquisition spree, buying up various companies involved in the manufacture of network components.

That spree culminated in the purchase of US Robotics, maker of the much-beloved Sportster and Courier modems. By this time 3Com was really in the business of selling low-end networking kit to end-customers and companies wanting to connect networks together, and US Robotic's strategy of providing cheap deals to ISPs to promote adoption of its proprietary standards worked well - in 1998 the company was bringing in $5.42bn, though in the same year it spent most of the profit on $253.7m of acquisitions and integrations.

The company also suffered, somewhat unfairly, as everyone assumed the day of the modem was pretty much dead with everyone moving to ADSL and cable modems within a few months. In reality, that shift took years - in places it's still happening, leaving US Robotics still selling dial-up modems to this day.

With US Robotics came Palm, but while it was fun to own the leading PDA manufacturer it was hardly core to 3Com's business. Despite making a little foray into consumer-connected devices in the form of the Audrey, the company decided to get out while the going was good and spun Palm off in 2000.

Boarding a slow boat to China

3Com had done many things, but most of its income was still coming from Ethernet cards - most of them admittedly embedded in motherboards, but still generating revenue. But into the 21st century even those started to disappear, the capability being built into system chips. The company cut back its workforce, which had risen to 13,000 in 2000, to about 2,000 staff and relocated to Massachusetts.

In 2003, 3Com did a deal with Huawei to get into the Chinese market, setting up a joint venture based in Hong Kong. That project proved so successful that last year the partners bid against each other for complete ownership. 3Com won the auction and took control in November last year. But the venture also allowed both Huawei and Bain Capital to get a good look at 3Com from the inside, and demonstrated how attractive the company could be.

The fact that 3Com has been bought comes as no great surprise: Nortel was in the frame for a while, though some predicted a further carve-up between established players. The deal will probably still have to be agreed by the US government, who might not want the Chinese learning how to make cheap Ethernet cards or network switches.

Huawei has been trying to raise its profile in the west for some time, as most tech journalists will testify, but purchasing 3Com is rather more dramatic than throwing alcohol at a few hacks as they've tried in the past. It gets a lot more press, too.

3Com started as that rarest of breeds: a successful pioneer, reflecting the brilliance of its founders but also a fair bit of luck in hitting the right product at the right time. Cautious in business, but willing to jump headlong into new technologies with little regard for their eventual success, 3Com made many mistakes but got lucky more often than chance would seem to allow.

We need a 3Com, willing to take risks and make mistakes, as if no-one takes the chances then nothing develops. Hopefully the new owners will maintain something of that pioneer spirit, they can certainly afford to.®

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
It's Big, it's Blue... it's simply FABLESS! IBM's chip-free future
Or why the reversal of globalisation ain't gonna 'appen
'Hmm, why CAN'T I run a water pipe through that rack of media servers?'
Leaving Las Vegas for Armenia kludging and Dubai dune bashing
Microsoft and Dell’s cloud in a box: Instant Azure for the data centre
A less painful way to run Microsoft’s private cloud
Facebook slurps 'paste sites' for STOLEN passwords, sprinkles on hash and salt
Zuck's ad empire DOESN'T see details in plain text. Phew!
CAGE MATCH: Microsoft, Dell open co-located bit barns in Oz
Whole new species of XaaS spawning in the antipodes
AWS pulls desktop-as-a-service from the PC
Support for PCoIP protocol means zero clients can run cloudy desktops
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.