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Qualcomm Says its Bad Years Are Over. Do Analysts Believe It?

November 20, 2019, 2:31 PM UTC

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Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf hasn’t just had one annus horribilis, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Latin phrase for a horrible year. He’s had three or four—in a row.

Four years ago, China fined Qualcomm $1 billion and scrambled its lucrative arrangements to license its mobile chips to phonemakers there. Then came antitrust investigations in South Korea and the United States. And all of that was nothing compared to when its best customer, Apple, sued and then stopped paying, eventually shifting all of its iPhone modem business to Intel in 2017. Finally, last year, regulators killed Mollenkopf’s $44 billion deal to buy NXP Semiconductors and grab a strong position in the market for chips in cars. Qualcomm’s stock price tumbled from almost $70 to less than $40.

So why was Mollenkopf so bright and chipper on Tuesday morning in New York City? In a sharp blue suit and red patterned tie, the silver-haired CEO played host to 100 or so Wall Street analysts and investors at an event I attended. A parade of top Qualcomm executives explained how the company was poised to profit from the coming wave of 5G phones and increase in connected devices that measure everything from crop water levels to highway traffic. “A lot of the hard work is behind us,” Mollenkopf noted in his introduction.

Here’s the litany of good news: Apple is back in the fold, and the stock price is pushing $90, heights last seen two decades ago, during the Internet bubble. Even with global smartphone sales slipping, Qualcomm has expanded from selling modems and processors in phones to other parts, including the antennas and power modulators. The company is collecting 50% more revenue from the average 5G phone than it does on older 4G models. It’s built a solid and growing unit selling infotainment systems for cars that have loads of potential with self-driving vehicles. And Qualcomm is trying yet again to crack Intel’s near-monopoly on chips for PCs and servers, this time with a couple of promising new efforts that play to its strengths—see, for example, the Qualcomm processor inside Microsoft’s slick new Surface X tablet.

It’s an impressive recovery, but maybe not quite enough. Stock market investors were disappointed by the forecast that sales could only grow 10% or more per year over the next three years, with profits increasing only slightly faster. And Qualcomm’s stock slid 3% by the end of Tuesday. While Mollenkopf and his team hinted that their forecast might be overly conservative, some analysts still fretted.

“A little math suggests conservatism is likely at play here,” longtime chip analyst Stacy Rasgon at Bernstein Research wrote in a report that I received after the meeting. “But by the same token, this is also a management team that has over-spent their credibility budget in the past, so it is never possible to entirely dismiss the worry that something else might be going on.”

(Programming note: Robert Hackett’s cybersecurity edition of Data Sheet will be in Thursday’s issue this week.)

Aaron Pressman

Twitter: @ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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NEWSWORTHY

Listen closely. The podcast wars are heating up. After buying a couple of podcasting companies earlier this year, Spotify is adding a personalized playlist of the short audio shows to every user's library. Called "Your Daily Podcasts," the list will include both new and old shows that might appeal to the user.

Burn, baby, burn. A startup called Heliogen, backed by Bill Gates and famed VC Bill Gross, left stealth mode on Tuesday to reveal a new solar technology that could replace the manufacturing process for industrial materials like cement, coke, and steel with one that produces far less pollution. The company uses A.I. vision systems to concentrate solar energy and reach temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius, almost double the heat of other solar systems.

Uncovering the truth. The 2018 accident in which an Uber self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Arizona was due to a distracted human backup driver, not flawed software. Uber had disabled an automatic braking system and relied on human backup in emergencies, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded on Tuesday. Separately, Uber said it will begin making audio recordings of some rides in Latin America for safety (riders can opt out, if they desire).

Chatterbox. A single number disclosed by Microsoft crushed the stock of Slack, again. Microsoft said its competing Teams app has 20 million users, 67% more than its rival, sending Slack's stock down 8%. Slack's stock suffered a similar hit in July, when Microsoft said Teams had 13 million users.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

We have to be careful in journalism not to make too much of anecdotal evidence. Sometimes a good story is just a story about one person's experience. But other times a trail of anecdotes reveals a trend. That's what happened with the reporting on Apple's problematic butterfly keyboard. Jennifer Elias at CNBC is onto another anecdote-based story after she noticed that some people are dropping Fitbit and deleting their fitness data from the company because of the pending Google takeover. Is it a real trend? We'll have to wait and see. Here's a sampling:

“I only recently got it and now I’m thinking I don’t need Google watching literally my every step or my every heart beat,” said Dan Kleinman, who said he is getting rid of his Fitbit Versa.

Some people cited Google’s 2014 acquisition of Nest Labs, which, at the time consisted of smart home thermostats. Since then, the company has tied Nest’s technology, branding and device accounts to its digital assistant and smart speakers.

“I use a lot of Google services and think they do a decent job, but I’m not interested in adding my health data to their systems,” said Fredrik Matheson who got rid of his Charge 3 after the announcement.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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IBM: The Fight Against A.I. Bias Is Never Over By David Meyer

Robinhood Expands Across the Pond, With Plans to Launch Fee-Free Stock Trading in the U.K. By Adrian Croft

Big Tech’s Favorite Legal Shield Is in Danger By Jeff John Roberts

One Issue Bringing Democrats and Republicans Together? Banning Big Tech From Banking By Nicole Goodkind

Google Partners With Media Outlets to Launch an Audio News Service for Assistant By Jeff John Roberts

Apple Is Staging a December Press Event, But Its Products Won’t Be in the Spotlight By Don Reisinger

BEFORE YOU GO

Were you a fan of Pizza Rat, the New York City rodent who famously dragged a slice of 'za down a subway staircase in a viral video a few years ago? (It has 11 million views so far!) Well, he or she is not alone. The New York Times has compiled a bunch of wacky and unlikely animal photos from around the city. Check out English Sparrow and fries, murder cat, and the remarkably patient owl.

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