Phoenix sheds FailSafe

Contact: John Abbott

Phoenix Technologies announced at the start of the year that it was putting its plans to expand beyond the core BIOS software business on hold, and hired GrowthPoint Technology Partners to find a buyer for its non-strategic technology assets. A short time later, CEO Woodson Hobbs was out the door, followed soon after by CFO Richard Arnold. Ironically, Hobbs was originally hired in September 2006 to turn the company around, and his first task back then was to rebuild the BIOS business after Phoenix had lost its way through diversification. It appears that Hobbs fell into the same trap by putting too much effort into HyperSpace, a hypervisor that was being positioned as the basis for an OS for netbooks. Tom Lacey, who previously worked at Applied Materials Inc and before that Flextronics, took over as CEO in February.

Now a buyer has been announced for the first of Phoenix’s unwanted assets: FailSafe, a theft-loss protection and prevention system for laptops, and the associated Freeze computer locking system. The acquirer is security tools provider Absolute Software and the price tag is $6.9m. (This is Absolute’s second acquisition in five months: last December it spent $9.6m on the assets of Pole Position Software, primarily for the target’s LANrev asset management package). Phoenix is still trying to offload HyperSpace itself as well as the line of online PC diagnostics tools.

Since the need for a new OS to run on netbooks now appears to be fading away, HyperSpace could conceivably be utilized by vendors addressing the desktop virtualization market. However, the largest players here – VMware, Citrix and Microsoft – are working with their own hypervisors and are unlikely to want another. Interestingly, Phoenix has filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against startup DeviceVM, the developer of the SplashTop lightweight Linux OS. DeviceVM has licensing deals in place with netbook and laptop makers Asus, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, LG Electronics, Acer and Sony.

New CEO Lacey claims that excellent progress is being made on refocusing Phoenix back onto its BIOS business. At the end of fiscal 2009 (ending September 30), the noncore products made up less than 10% of Phoenix’s $67.7m in revenue, an overall decline of 8% over 2008. That means core BIOS sales are back down to the same level as they were in fiscal 2006, despite the acquisition of direct rival General Software Inc in July 2008. In its most recent first quarter, the company posted revenue of $15.6m (down from $17.4m in Q1 2009) and a profit of $1.1m (including a one-off $7.1m income tax refund). Phoenix has cash on hand of $27.9m.