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Preview: Apple Earnings Not Just About iPhone

Monday, 21 Jul 2008 | 12:34 PM ET

Apple has had a quarter for the ages these past few months: Mac sales soared, if you believe the 38 percent pop that IDC reported; Apple hosted its first-ever sold-out Developers Conference where Steve Jobs unveiled the new iPhone 3G; his appearance on our air spawned rumors all over the web that he was in ill health, forcing some extremely uncomfortable "reporting," and hand-wringing about how to handle a very sensitive topic; iPhone 3G hit store shelves and there was (putting it nicely) confusion over just how successful its first three days were (very, since it sold 1 million units, or better than 3 times what the first version of iPhone enjoyed.)

And the stock has seen its fair share of volatility as well, peaking at $190 on May 13, after hitting $119 and change just a few months before that. Apple shares did gain 17 percent on the quarter, but since June 30, they've trended lower, down below $165 with traders not sure which way the wind is blowing.

Unlike traders, Apple investors focused on the company's fundamentals, know which way the wind is blowing, and it feels like a tailwind, not a headwind. And here it is, earnings day: lots of news already baked into these shares but we'll get the specifics as well as some all-important guidance. The numbers to look for: $1.08 on $7.36 billion. Remember that the company last quarter anticipated $1 on $7.2 billion, so once again, Wall Street isn't buying Apple's typically historical guidance. And that's a key point to remember when the company offers its fourth quarter guidance later today. Under promise and over deliver.

I've seen $1.12 on $7.6 billion in a number of places; Gene Munster at Piper Jaffrey says the Street is at $1.25 as what to realistically expect from Apple, though there's no way the company will come anywhere near that number. Anything north of $1.14 would be considered very positive, he says. Others tell me anything below $1.11 would be bad for shares. The Street also suspects Apple will forecast $8 billion for its fourth fiscal quarter, though the Street is at $8.3 billion.

As far as the individual business units are concerned, most analysts I'm talking to expect 2.5 million Macs to have shipped; 10.5 million iPods, and the company won't be including iPhone numbers in revenue because of the unusual nature of the business unit this past quarter. To get ready for the 3G roll-out, Apple cleared the channel, and didn't sell a single iPhone for something like six weeks; and those 1 million units sold during 3G's first weekend came after the last quarter closed, so those unit numbers won't be included in the numbers either. Still, Apple is likely to offer up some kind of unit-sales-to-date number, and Munster seems to think that figure will come in around 720,000 units.

The fact is, Apple has beaten the Street for the past seven straight quarters, and there's every indication that the company will do so again this time around. And yet the stock still languishes. That means the Apple story will once again come down to guidance. Traders love it; investors hate it. If the company doesn't measure up, shares will get crushed even though fundamentals here remain so incredibly robust, and the iPhone as "platform" will tell the Apple story for years to come.

Today, iPhone only represents about 5 percent of Apple's business, but is growing, and dramatically. "Only" is an interesting word for a product that's "only" been around for a year or so. And the prospects for this product seem so strong. Think about it: on the same day bank customers were lined up outside of IndyMac in Southern California because the bank failed, Apple customers were still lined up, days after 3G's launch, trying to plunk down a couple of hundred bucks for a new cell phone. The dichotomy here is palpable.

At a time when we're all worried about recession and global economic slowdown, Apple is still seeing lines for its gadgets, Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Microsoft are all posting stronger than expected revenue. That bodes well for Apple even in this third quarter, historically Apple's slowest, as shoppers gear up for back-to-school in a couple of months. Economic worries could contribute to a lackluster forecast if shoppers aren't trading up to a new Mac before the school year starts. That's worth watching.

And something else: someone is likely to ask about Steve Jobs' health during the conference call. I wouldn't be surprised if it came up. I would be surprised if Apple offered anything other than what they've been saying all along: that he was being treated for a "bug" of some kind. But anything new on that front bears some focus as well. Right now, I don't see anything that derails Apple as a longer term opportunity for patient investors. Think of the company that way and it almost doesn't matter what Apple reports today. And that's why guidance today is so absolutely key for Apple and investors parking their money in it.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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