Mobile manager firm looks to IPO as tech stocks rebound

BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5 smartphones
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Half a decade ago, as companies across the globe started ditching BlackBerry devices for iPhones, chief information officers were stuck in a bind. All the servers and security tools they'd purchased over the years were dedicated to those once-dominant BlackBerry e-mailers, and wouldn't work with the new wave of app-heavy—and non-BlackBerry—smartphones.

MobileIron was among a handful of start-ups that saw big bucks in the emerging bring-your-own-device movement. Rather than waiting for Apple and eventually Google and Samsung to focus their attention on back-end protection, businesses could buy MobileIron's software to help them manage and secure the vast array of touch-screen phones and eventually tablets that employees were favoring.

MobileIron, based in Mountain View, California, is now set to give public market investors a chance to bet on the future of the company, which is expected to start trading Thursday under the symbol MOBL.

This comes just as the market gets increasingly competitive with cash-rich players such as VMware and Citrix Systems bulking up their offerings.

VMware spent more than $1.5 billion earlier this year on mobile security provider AirWatch, and Citrix bought rival Zenprise for hundreds of millions of dollars last year. Both can offer mobile device management as part of a broader suite of enterprise services. Meanwhile another independent challenger, Good Technology, is also on file to go public.

"There are a lot of me-too, good enough products out there," said Maribel Lopez, a mobile expert and founder of Lopez Research in San Francisco. "There's incredible pricing pressure, so margin pressure will be high."

Although sales at MobileIron more than doubled last year to $105.6 million, costs for research and development and marketing lifted operating expenses 57 percent to $120.9 million. Also, the company's gross margin fell to 82 percent in the first quarter of 2014, from 86 percent a year earlier. As of its latest filing, MobileIron was planning to raise up to $128 million in its initial public offering, scheduled for Wednesday night.

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Clarissa Horowitz, a spokeswoman for MobileIron, declined to comment because of the pre-IPO quiet period.

The stock sale follows a resurgence in technology shares in recent weeks, after a two-month market stumble, and the successful IPOs of computer-networking company Arista Networks last week and business-software maker Zenprise in May. Other enterprise tech companies such as Box delayed their IPOs amid the volatility.

Since its founding in 2008 by former Cisco Systems executive Bob Tinker, MobileIron has signed on more than 6,000 customers, from financial firms such as Barclays Capital and Blackstone Group to hospitality companies including Wyndham Hotel Group.

The software lets information technology managers control what apps are used on iPhones, Android devices and other phones tied to their networks, protect users from hackers and secure data when gadgets are lost or employees leave the company.

"It's a necessary component of moving to the new world," Lopez said. "People are being dragged there kicking and screaming."

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