Greenberg: Cisco as a Value Tech Stock?

SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- Listening to Cisco's  (CSCO) earnings call last night was painful.

CEO John Chambers mentioned transition (or some derivative) 27 times. (Considerably more than any time in the past year.)

And picking up on a theme that he has used in recent quarters, he talked about the "Internet of Everything" 16 times. (The record was 20 times at last year's analyst day.)

To give the full context, he said:

In our view, this next wave of the Internet, the Internet of Everything, will encompass every technology transition we are seeing in the market today, with the network squarely at the center. We are building the platform for the Internet of Everything with scale and security to address the unparalleled complexity requirements. We plan to continue to disrupt the market and disrupt ourselves to deliver the value and solutions our customers require.

Sounds good on paper, but the proof is in the numbers: Sales down 8%. Forecast for another down 6% to 8%. Gross margin of 53.3%. A quarter ago and year ago it was north of 60%. Don't even go to earnings.

While the "Internet of Everything" is a catchy phrase, it suggests to me one thing: No matter how much it is trying to reinvent itself, including it's goal to be "the No. 1 IT company," Cisco is now the king of a commoditized industry whose products have largely morphed into the mature/upgrade phase of their lives.

"Managing transition has been a core foundation for our success for nearly 30 years," says Chambers, who was on my list of nominees for last year's worst CEO.

This transition is different, and like all mature tech companies there's no guarantee Cisco can get out of its own way.

Reality Check: At some point Cisco will get less bad, it will have a good quarter, Wall Street will get excited again and, for at least one quarter, it will appear the worst is over.

As with most fallen tech-stock stars, however, it likely won't be.

But that won't stop investors, who for some reason always rally around mature tech companies hoping that, like IBM (IBM), they can reinvent themselves -- and lightning will strike twice.

Here's the hard truth, and check it out on any chart you like: Even the shares of Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT) stock have performed better than Cisco over the past five and 10 years. Hewlett Packard (HPQ) has been the laggard, but all of them have underperformed the S&P 500. Or to quote a tweet from Josh Brown, "Fun Fact: $CSCO's been a 22 dollar stock since Justin Bieber was born. Time for Icahn vs Chambers."

Makes you wonder if even it's too late for an activist. It's not like the company isn't already buying back its stock or boosting its dividend.

-- Written by Herb Greenberg in San Diego

Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security. He can be reached at herbonthestreet@thestreet.com.

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