Apple's New Year's resolution? Keep growing '16 iPhone sales

Apple beats on iPhone sales; Cook mum on projections

It's not even Halloween, but technology analysts are already thinking up New Year's resolutions. For Apple, that is.

Top analysts questioned whether the company can keep growing iPhone sales in the new year, though CEO Tim Cook projected another strong quarter into December after Tuesdays' earnings beat.

"There are a number of tailwinds that should make it easier to grow iPhones in the December quarter," Toni Sacconaghi, Sanford Bernstein technology analyst, said Wednesday on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." "But beyond that, those tailwinds go away. I think there's a fear in the investment community that December will be fine, and iPhone sales will grow, but thereafter they won't."

Apple reported iPhone sales of 48.04 million, with a record rate of Android conversion and growing sales in China. But the company reported conservative guidance for the current quarter: It expects revenue of $75.5 billion to $77.5 billion; analysts had expected sales of about $77.17 billion.

Apple Inc. iPhone 6s Plus smartphones are displayed after a product announcement in San Francisco, California.
Apple earnings: $1.96 per share, vs $1.88 expected

On an investor conference call Tuesday, Cook declined to answer Sacconaghi's requests for future growth projections beyond one quarter.

"The big question going into the call was can iPhone grow in [December] and beyond," Macquarie Capital's Ben Schachter wrote in a research note Wednesday. "The answer, at least for December, is yes, as AAPL stated that iPhone will grow in units and dollars in the December quarter. We view this as a remarkable achievement given the success of iPhone 6 last year. Now, all eyes will turn to calendar '16 and the long wait until iPhone 7."

To be sure, it's a positive sign for Apple's future that more than half of iPhone buyers in the just-completed quarter were first-time iPhone buyers, Sacconaghi said. But gaining such a large market share this year could set up some tough comparisons for next year, Abhey Lamba, Mizuho Securities senior technology analyst, told CNBC.

Last year, the market was watching smartphone penetration in the mobile market, Lamba said, while now analysts are eyeing market share, indicating the market is maturing.

What's next for Apple?

"We need to see how much of a tick down we get in March," Lamba said. "There's a risk that Apple shipped the iPhone late and they shipped in China early. That would imply that December quarter shipments are going to be artificially inflated because of the timing. We need to see if the demand holds through."

Shares of the company dipped yesterday on when Sacconaghi declared Apple's best days are in the past. Pacific Crest senior research analyst Andy Hargreaves said he agrees — but that shouldn't stop investors from considering the stock.

"The market is undoubtedly more saturated that it was at this point last year," Hargreaves told CNBC. "But you're not paying for a whole lot of growth at the current multiple …. Everything has a price, and at five-and-a-half times EBITA, a pretty small amount of growth ends up paying you decently well."

iPhones wouldn't be the first time Apple revamped a seemingly mature market. Tuesday's also revealed a record quarter for Mac sales, as other technology companies like Dell and Microsoft attempt to pivot away from the saturated personal computer market.

"Doubt Apple's ability to execute at your own peril here … With their balance sheet, Apple can do almost anything it wants," Alex Gauna of JMP Securities told CNBC."Here is a name that's outgrowing the global rate of economic expansion by an order of magnitude, and trading at a discount to the mean market multiple by about fifty percent. So the question investors should be asking themselves is, 'What are they waiting for here?'"

Shares of Apple were up 2 percent Wednesday morning after posting quarterly earnings that topped analyst expectations, reporting earnings of $1.96 per share on sales of $51.5 billion. Analysts expected earnings of $1.88 per share on $51.11 billion in revenue, according to a consensus estimate from Thomson Reuters.

— CNBC's Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.