Aether Systems narrows losses


Although a far cry from the heady months after it went public with its wireless data technology three years ago, Aether Systems Inc. enjoyed a rare day of upbeat news yesterday.

Its stock rose nearly 9 percent, its quarterly and annual earnings exceeded analysts' expectations and it announced its second strategic partnership with a major computer company in a month.

Aether develops technology that trucking companies, law enforcement and the military, among others, use to communicate via mobile devices.

After the stock market closed, the Owings Mills-based company announced a net loss for the fourth quarter of 2002 of $24.1 million, or 57 cents a share. That compared favorably with the fourth quarter of 2001, when the company lost $106.8 million, or $2.59 a share.

For all of 2002, the company reported a net loss of $325.4 million, or $7.73 a share. That also was an improvement over 2001's net loss of $1.7 billion, or $40.61 a share.

Accounting for unusual items, the company's net loss was 35 cents a share for the quarter, improved from a loss of 96 cents a share a year earlier, and $2.22 a share for all of 2002, compared with a loss of $4.41 in 2001.

Analysts anticipated a loss of 38 cents for the quarter and $2.24 for the year.

Aether improved its position primarily because of cost cutting. Its staff is now about 490, down from 850 a year ago and 1,400 at its peak two years ago. The company also pared its locations to three - in Owings Mills, Northern Virginia and Boston - from nine at one time.

Operating expenses decreased for the seventh quarter in a row, to $21.2 million, about half of what they were for the comparable period a year earlier, $42.6 million. Operating expenses are down by more than 65 percent from their height of $63.2 million in the first quarter of 2001.

Operating expenses for 2002 were $114.7 million, down from $221.6 million in 2001.

Sales, however, were nearly flat. Revenue was $29.5 million in the fourth quarter, compared with $25.2 million a year earlier. For all of 2002, revenue was $116.5 million, up from $112.9 million in 2001.

"It looks OK, but revenue was a bit light," said Paul Coster, an analyst for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in New York.

Aether closed up 29 cents to $3.64 a share yesterday on the Nasdaq stock market.

Aether and Sun Microsystems Inc. announced yesterday that they will collaborate on marketing and developing wireless technology for the enterprise market. Sun, a leading manufacturer of computer servers, and Aether have worked together before. Last month, Aether announced a partnership with a large technology company, Electronic Data Systems Corp.

"It was a quarter where we did what we said what we were going to do ... blocking and tackling," said David C. Reymann, Aether's chief financial officer. "We're really positioned for growth."

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