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Motorola earns its wings

Motorola, marred by product delays, layoffs, and declining market share, is finally taking flight.

Motorola says its products give you wings, but after a year marred by product delays, layoffs, and declining market share, it's the company's stock that is finally taking flight.

Shares have climbed steadily since a positive earnings report in early October, and analysts say the company has finally started to put its fragmented financial puzzle back together.

The comeback has been led by a string of new product announcements and

market alliances in Motorola's digital telephone business, analysts said. The latest bit of good news broke Monday, when the company announced a $100 million contract Monday with SK Telecom, Korea's largest cellular carrier. Under the deal, Motorola will provide SK Telecom's service program with 400,000 digital phones.

But the Schaumburg, Illinois, company is not yet out of the woods, analysts warn. The world semiconductor market remains weak, with little prospect for significant improvement in the next few months. Similarly, Motorola's Asian operations have been sharply affected by the still-deepening financial crisis. In last month's earnings report, company officials warned that these trends would continue to affect business in upcoming quarters.

The recent round of good news has nevertheless sweetened Wall Street's view of the company after a steady year-long stock slide.

Investment bank Gruntal reiterated its "buy" rating on the company today, citing the SK Telecom deal and the potential for increased sales in the digital phone market.

"It was widely recognized that they fell behind in development, missed an intense shift to digital technology, and gave up market share because of that," said Bradley Williams, a financial analyst with Legg Mason Wood and Walker.

Motorola's once-dominant position in the mobile phone industry was eroded after it lagged competitors in bringing digital phones to market. Now a number of companies have eclipsed Motorola: Ericsson and Nokia are the top mobile phone makers.

Beginning last summer, the company unveiled a string of new products, including a line of tiny, high-end digital phones. "Most people who saw those products thought they would be well received," Willams said. "Now it comes down to a matter of execution."

About 40 percent of the company's sales last year were in its cellular division. The company's new StarTac line of digital phones, introduced in August, are beginning to sell and analysts expect to see an uptick in StarTac sales during the first half of 1999.

Motorola also has followed though in promises to cut costs and streamline production, closing plants around the world and shifting the focus of its struggling semiconductor business.

"They're ahead of their plans in expense reductions. They were just too fat, and needed to cut some of the fat out," said A.G. Edwards analyst Chris Chaney.

The company's restructuring plan is a step in the right direction, Chaney said. Motorola is in the process of laying off 15,000 employees worldwide.

Last June, company executives set a public target of cutting costs by $750 million over a 12-month period. Spokesman David Rudd said today that the company had already moved halfway toward that goal.

Motorola also has changed the way it responds to customer demand, most notably in its shift to digital telephone technology, Rudd added. "We've approached our customers differently," he said. "Before, we provided the products and they took them regardless of what they actually wanted. Now we're listening a lot more closely."

Whatever their internal goals, the company still faces thorny external market conditions, analysts warned.

"They're still facing a very difficult environment," said SG Cowen analyst Wojtek Uzdelewicz. "The issue they're facing is possibly a weaker demand in the space they're in." The company has not yet established high visibility in the wireless infrastructure market, and still is tied to weak sectors of the semiconductor market, he added.

Motorola's stock Motorola stock chart woes have mirrored the poor performance of the larger technology market. Shares have rebounded since bottoming out at a 52-week low of 38.375 October 5. Yet since then, shares have shot up nearly 39 percent--but still trade below year-ago levels. The stock finished down 2 percent today at 52.4375.

Gruntal holds a 12-month price target for Motorola shares at $65, while A.G. Edwards' price target has a $55 price target on the stock.

Financial analysts said Motorola's stock climb marks Wall Street's recognition of the company's recent efforts, but added that further proof of a viable recovery plan is needed.

Motorola has a better business plan now than it did a few years ago, analysts said, when the company tried to sell more phones at lower prices, resulting in lower profit margins.

"Clearly they want to move phones beyond analog and digital to encompass more synchronization features and personal services," said David Cooperstein, a telecommunications market analyst for Forrester Research.

Motorola has made several small announcements that could pay big dividends in the next year, Cooperstein said, pointing to the company's purchase of Starfish in July. Starfish specializes in technology that connects and integrates wireless and wireline devices.

Cooperstein said he expects the company to migrate toward connecting different devices, such as phones, PCs, and handheld devices to a central data services bureau.

"Motorola needs to extend what people use the phone for," he said.

To that end, the company established a new Internet and Connectivity Services Division in August.

Meanwhile, its "walkie-talkie"-like broadcast feature on Motorola iDEN phones have become popular with field technicians and corporate sales forces, analysts said. And the company also has improved its satellite production capabilities, a growing market as companies look to offer Internet, voice, and data services via low Earth orbit satellites.

Although analysts said Motorola has a better focus on its future business, the company still must prove it can deliver on its promises.

"I think we're getting closer to the point where they have to demonstrate continued execution," Legg Mason's Williams said. "But the news coming out of the company is still positive."