Will Apple keep up the momentum?

Quarterly earnings due Monday will show how the Snow Leopard release, price cuts on the Mac, and expanding iPhone availability have affected Apple's financial health.

Although there are more signs lately that the worst of the recession is over, Apple is one of the few companies that has seen little of the effects of the recession to begin with.

We'll find out if the company's good health has remained during the quarterly checkup Monday afternoon. According to Wall Street, it's been another good three months for the Cupertino, Calif.-based company. Apple's stock price jumped 43 points during the quarter to close at $185.35. Because of a string of impressive earnings announcements dating back a year ago, the launch of the company's latest operating system update, signs it gained share in the smartphone and computer markets, and a helpful accounting rule change, financial analysts are expecting good things from the company's fiscal year fourth-quarter earnings.

Apple MacBook Pro
Did price cuts on the MacBook improve Mac sales for the quarter? Dan Ackerman/CNET

Analysts are expecting Apple to record earnings per share somewhere between $1.24 and $1.72, and revenue between $8.74 billion and $10.55 billion for the quarter ending September 30. Apple is known to provide consistently conservative guidance for future quarters, hence the wide gap in analyst estimates.

But a good way to know what's to come can usually be seen in the unit sales reports. Last week IDC reported that Apple had amassed a 9.4 percent share of the U.S. PC market--a jump from the 8.6 percent of the previous quarter. Near the end of the previous quarter Apple offered some price cuts on most of its Mac models. The sales numbers for the quarter, whatever they end up being, will be regarded as a commentary on whether those price cuts went far enough.

Apple watcher Gene Munster over at Piper Jaffray says he's had a peek at Mac unit sales for the quarter, and he says the company is on target to report sales of 2.8 million Macs. That would be an increase over the previous quarter's sales of 2.6 million , and it makes sense: The third quarter is a traditional time for people to buy computers ahead of the back-to-school season, and Apple also released its long-awaited operating system update, Mac OS X 10.6, or Snow Leopard.

On the smartphone side of the business, if Apple does once again report good numbers, it'll be one of the few in that industry. Despite constant attempts by rival handset makers to produce the "iPhone killer," Apple's main competitors in the smartphone world have struggled during the most recent quarter--Nokia, Palm, and Research In Motion each posting disappointing results.

Piper Jaffray is estimating that Apple sold 7.5 million iPhones. Munster said inventory checks showed that demand for the iPhone 3GS is "outstripping supply," which means that iPhone sales for the next several quarters should be fairly steady. We should also get an update on the number of countries and carriers that have the latest iPhone model. Apple had said in July that it was supposed to be in 80 countries by the end of the summer.

The iPod is the only real question mark when it comes to Apple's main revenue-generating products. The quarter ending in June was the first in which iPod sales saw a year-over-year drop. Apple acknowledged it last quarter, saying that it expected eventual declines in iPod sales, and that it was the reason it developed the iPod Touch. Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer actually broke out the individual sales numbers for each iPod model and cautioned that the company expected "to cannibalize ourselves with iPod Touch and iPhone."

A slew of new iPods--including the new camera-equipped Nano--were introduced near the end of the quarter, so the full effect of those new models probably won't be visible until the following quarter.

Apple iPhone sales
James Martin/CNET

The biggest change during the quarter however had nothing to do with anything that had a keyboard or a touch screen. Apple was one of several companies to lobby (successfully) for an accounting rule change that, if applied to the most recent quarter, will likely show much higher revenue for the iPhone.

The practice--in which Apple has been recognizing revenue for the iPhone and Apple TV over a two-year period--was put in place to avoid charging a fee for every product upgrade. It was something Apple was told it would need to satisfy accounting regulations that require companies to establish a value for product upgrades. The new rule won't change the amount of revenue coming into the company's coffers, but it will provide a more accurate picture of how much money the iPhone in particular is bringing in every quarter.

Check back Monday afternoon. Apple's results will be posted shortly after 1 p.m. Pacific.

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur. E-mail Erica.

 

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