By Jeremy C. Owens
The rise of artificial intelligence could be similar to the dot-com boom and the smartphone era, but will Nvidia's sudden rise play out like the iPhone's dominance or the Cisco flameout?
Nvidia Corp.'s sales of hardware needed for artificial intelligence have taken off and sent the chip maker's stock into the stratosphere, early proof that a new era has arrived for tech.
Now investors are wondering where the chip maker -- and the larger tech sector -- heads from here, after Nvidia (NVDA) earlier this year became just the seventh publicly traded U.S. company to top a $1 trillion market capitalization. A look back at the companies that defined the prior two tech cycles -- the dot-com boom and bust and the smartphone and cloud eras -- shows the possibilities for Nvidia as technology transitions into a period fueled by AI.
Don't miss: Nvidia is seeing a generative-AI boom, but don't bet on it spreading to the rest of tech yet
As the internet arrived in the 1990s, a hardware company convinced investors that the dot-com boom was real, showing similar huge revenue gains to what Nvidia is sporting today. Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), which makes the networking gear that companies needed to take advantage of the internet, saw revenue jump from less than $2 billion in its 1995 fiscal year to more than $4 billion in 1996.
The company then added another $2 billion in sales in each of the next two years. Sales jumped even more in 1999 and 2000, when Cisco reported nearly $19 billion in annual revenue.
The networking build-out of the late 1990s proceeded to hit a snag, though. Growth slowed in late 2000 and early 2001, then reversed to a revenue decline in 2002, as the internet didn't take off as expected. Many of the companies that expected to see huge consumer and enterprise dollars flowing onto the web failed to live up to that vision, leading to a huge flameout for Cisco's stock.
Eventually, that money did flow to the internet, but it took the rise of smartphones to truly realize the promises made during the late 1990s. Apple Inc. (AAPL) introduced the iPhone in 2007 and immediately saw sales gains that vaulted into the stratosphere in 2010 with an increase of nearly 80%. By 2012, Apple was reporting revenue that more than sextupled its 2007 sales, and the mobile era was truly upon us.
While growth did slow from there for Apple, it did not come close to the cliff that Cisco experienced, and the overall tech sector easily withstood a growth slowdown at Apple. What was the difference? While Cisco's hardware sales failed to spark widespread revenue gains throughout the larger tech sector, Apple's did, thanks to the immediate success of mobile apps sold through the App Store.
In a new era of technology, it is always hardware sales that lead, and other companies eventually develop software and services that take advantage of that hardware. In the case of Cisco, the online services developed did not find immediate success.
For Apple, though, there was a near-immediate wave of innovation that created mobile apps like Uber Technologies Inc.'s (UBER) ride-hailing service and Snap Inc.'s (SNAP) Snapchat. The iPhone era gave a second wind to services developed for personal computers, such as Meta Platforms Inc.'s (META) Facebook and Netflix Inc.'s (NFLX) streaming service.
Analysts have already compared Nvidia to Apple, largely because of the chip maker's large profit margins and its mature and important Cuda software, a proprietary offering much like Apple's.
"While Apple never sold the majority of global smartphones, it generated most of the profit in the industry and still does. Nvidia has established itself as the heir apparent in our view -- with a prescient full-stack approach that makes it much more than a chip company," Melius Research analysts wrote in July.
For more: Nvidia is showing shades of Apple, bullish analysts write
To forecast Nvidia's success, it's therefore helpful to think about companies like Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL)(GOOGL) Google that are buying up Nvidia's AI gear and paying to access it through cloud services. Will these companies successfully develop next-generation software and services that will generate revenue gains for themselves, and more importantly, when will that happen?
For Nvidia to follow Apple's example, those customers will need to succeed with their new offerings no more than a couple of years down the road. Nvidia executives have not provided financial guidance more than a quarter ahead, but analysts have suggested this wave of investment is unlikely to continue beyond that without such a surge from other tech companies.
"While gauging the magnitude and trajectory of capacity additions and AI demand may be foolish to predict, we suspect that we likely have another 12 -- 18 months+ of unbridled AI infrastructure build-out, but things look murkier beyond that," Bernstein analysts wrote in late July, while looking at other historical comparisons for Nvidia's success.
See also: Will AI do to Nvidia what the dot-com boom did to Sun Microsystems? Analysts compare current hype to past ones
Examples of huge demand for chips building and then suddenly disappearing are prevalent in Nvidia's history. Demand for cards used to mine cryptocurrency fell off in 2018, leading to a "crypto hangover," and the end of pandemic-era demand for gaming cards last year dinged sales and the company's stock ahead of the current spike.
But Nvidia executives insist that the company does not need the current interest in generative AI -- the approach that made ChatGPT famous -- to continue its success. Chief Financial Officer Colette Kress told MarketWatch last month that while "generative AI was the 'a-ha moment' for enterprises to understand how AI works and how they can apply it," Nvidia's technology will be used for a much wider variety of AI use cases, mentioning drug discovery and powerful supercomputers.
Nvidia should continue to put up strong numbers for the next couple of years, and its stock is unlikely to crater in that time. Whether the stock can rack up continued strong gains in that period is more uncertain, however, though the current valuation seems to bake in the revenue gains being maintained at the very least.
If Nvidia is like Apple, with an ecosystem that will spur software innovation in the coming years that will convince companies to continue buying their gear, then buying in now could be like buying Apple stock in, say, 2008. But if you believe it will take longer for the AI era to show that fruit, then there could be a dip coming that would allow for a better buying opportunity -- after all, Cisco's market capitalization has tripled from the depths of the dot-com bust and the stock has joined the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial AverageDJIA.
-Jeremy C. Owens
This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
09-19-23 1317ETCopyright (c) 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.