Tech Check

Apple: Will It Keep Vaulting Over The Bar?

When it comes to Apple Inc. , the bar is set so nose-bleedingly high that you gotta wonder whether this company is poised to perform or plummet when it releases earnings this evening.

Shares continue to climb today, up another 2% at this writing, a kind of serene island in the midst of the volatile vagaries and stormy seas on Wall Street. The earnings numbers by themselves are the easy, if meaningless, part of the Apple news. The Street is anticipating 88 cents, more than 20 cents higher than Apple's own internal guidance, on $6 billion in revenue.

The whisper numbers, however, are far more important. Analysts expect 1 million iPhones to have sold during the product's first full quarter of availability, though the whisper is 1.059 million. Analysts expect between 9 million and 10 million iPods sold, though the whisper is 11 million. Mac sales should come in just shy of 2 million units, but the whisper is closer to 2.2 million.

That Mac number deserves a mention since it is such a blockbuster. Piper's Gene Munster tells me the best sequential Mac unit growth the company has ever experienced was 350,000. An average sequential unit growth number is 100,000. If Apple meets the Mac whisper, that would represent 500,000 units. No pressure there. But the number may not seem so unrealistic when you consider that the company is releasing the new Leopard operating system, and a new OS always seems to juice Apple Mac sales.

Consider also that Intel reported incredibly strong PC momentum around the world when it released earnings last week, and Apple is becoming more and more of an important player to Intel, though still a pittance when stacked up against Dell and HP. Still, Apple's PC sales are growing three times faster than its nearest competitors, and the sector is growing faster than analysts anticipated. That all bodes well for Apple, especially as the company heads into its key holiday shopping quarter.

Incidentally, when I last interviewed Steve Jobs, just after he finished unveiling the iPod Touch and those sweet little Nanos, he pointed to the breadth of iPhones, iPods and Macs and flatly stated that the company is headed into this holiday shopping season with its best product line-up. Ever. Piper just completed its teen shopping survey which found better than 75% of the kids polled want a new iPod this holiday season.

The stock is another story. These shares have been on a wild ride these last several months, years even. Piper still has a Street high $211 target, but Caris raised its price to $200 today; a bold call just hours before the company releases earnings. Caris has equally bold calls in the major categories: 1.4 million iPhones and 11.5 million iPods.

And looking at the company's share price might give an investor pause that the stock has outrun realistic, rational expectations. This was an $80 issue a year ago today; this morning it almost touched $175, which would have been an all-time high. And a 38x forward P/E might seem steep, but when you look at the fundamentals of this company, assuming costs aren't out of whack (and they really shouldn't be with component prices falling so dramatically this past quarter), and that growth in the next couple of quarters ought to continue, these shares might still be a bargain. If Apple can keep it up.

And with the world going digital, and mobile and digital entertainment the single biggest trends in tech nowadays, Apple is in the right place at the right time. And even at these levels, Apple shareholders might be too.

Questions?  Comments?