Three things we learned from Apple's Q3 earnings call

For Apple CEO Tim Cook, it was a time to talk up China and a new partnership with IBM -- and to downplay weak iPad sales.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook James Martin/CNET

With the next iPhone still a few months away, it's easy to ignore Apple's fiscal third-quarter results. But that doesn't mean they didn't yield some interesting insights.

The Cupertino, Calif., company sure wasn't going to talk about new products -- besides CEO Tim Cook saying Apple has "an incredible pipeline of new products and services that we can't wait to show you." But Cook did spend a lot of time Tuesday discussing the slowdown in iPad sales, how Apple's new partnership with IBM can turn tablet results around, and just how strong China has become.

Apple generates two-thirds of its revenue from the iPhone and iPad, and it's vital that the company finds a way to keep demand strong for those devices. The pressure also is on for Apple to release new devices that prove it still has that magic touch. Market watchers already are looking ahead to what one analyst, Cantor Fitzgerald's Brian White, called the "Fab Fall" launch -- likely a couple new iPhones with bigger screens, new iPads, an iWatch, and possibly more.

In the meantime, here's what Cook had to say about Apple's fiscal third quarter.

Apple's iPad problem isn't just inventory. It's also demand

Apple reported relatively strong iPhone sales during the June quarter (35.2 million versus 31.2 million a year ago and analysts' forecast for 35.9 million), but its iPad results were weak for the second period in a row. It sold 13.3 million iPads in the most recent quarter, down 9 percent from a year ago and below the 14.4 million expected by analysts.

Last quarter, Cook blamed the iPad weakness on the number of devices held in channel inventory (which means they're either sitting in stores or on trucks). But Tuesday, he noted that lower demand in some regions also is playing a role.

"iPad sales met our expectations, but we realized they didn't meet many of yours. Our sales were gated in part by a reduction in channel inventory and in part by market softness in certain parts of the world. For example, IDC's latest estimate indicates a 5 percent overall decline in the US tablet market, as well as a decline in the Western European tablet market in the June quarter. ...

If you sort of back up from this, the category that we created, which has just been a little over four years, we have now sold 225 million iPads, which is I think probably a larger number than anyone would have predicted at the time and including ourselves, quite frankly. We still feel that category as a whole is in its early days and that there is also significant innovation that can be brought to the iPad, and we plan on doing that. When I look at the top level numbers, I get really excited when I see that more than 50 percent of the iPads that we're selling are going to someone who is a first-time tablet buyer. I get excited when I see that our retail share according to the NPD in the month of June was 59 percent of units and over 70 percent in terms of dollars. ...

The market's very bifurcated on iPad. In the BRIC countries [of Brazil, Russia, India, and China], iPad did extremely well. The growth was very high. Like in China it was in the 50 [percent range], in the Middle East it was in the 60 [percent range]. ... In the developed countries like the US, the market is clearly weaker there.

It's interesting to note, however, that the US as an example, we had a very, very strong Macintosh market in the US and so there is probably a bit of higher add kind of stuff beginning to play out too, where higher add is clearly still very much notebook oriented. K-12 [elementary and secondary education] on the other hand, we sell 2.5 iPads for every Mac in the K-12. And so we're clearly headed into that season now and it typically starts in graduation time prime in fiscal Q3 for us. And so I think that's probably another thing that we're seeing."

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The IBM partnership and push with business users could be 'huge' for Apple -- and boost iPad

Cook sees big opportunities for Apple in tapping the enterprise market. Already, most of the Fortune 500 companies use Apple products, but there are still a lot of ways the company could generate more money from business users.

The company last week struck a deal with IBM for the two companies to build business apps specific to the iPhone and iPad. IBM's cloud computing services -- such as device management, security, and analytics -- will be optimized for iOS, and Big Blue's 100,000 consultants will push Apple devices in the field.

"We also are in ... virtually all Fortune 500 companies, we are in 99 percent of them to be exact and 93 percent of the Global 500. However, when we dig into the business market deeper, though our market share in the US in the commercial sector is good at 76 percent -- this is according to IDC -- the penetration in business is low. It's only 20 percent. And to put that in some kind of context, if you looked at penetration of notebooks in business, it would be over 60 percent. And so we think that there is a substantial upside in business. And this was one of the thinkings behind the partnership with IBM that we announced last week.

We think that the core thing that unleashes this is a better go-to-market, which IBM clearly brings to the table, but even more importantly apps that are written with mobile first in mind. Not all but many of the enterprises apps that have been written for iPad have been essentially ports from a desktop arrangement and haven't taken full advantage of mobile. And so we're excited about bringing that to businesses along with partnering with IBM, which we think is a first-class company.

And seeing what that can do to sales of business, which I honestly believe the opportunity is huge. The market is still predicted in 2018 -- I think these are Gartner numbers -- to be about 350 million in size and put that in some context, I think the PC market right now is about 315 million.

And so I think our theory that has been there honestly since the first time that we shipped iPad, that the tablet market would eventually surpass the PC market, that theory is still intact. I just think we have to do some more things to get the business side of it moving in a faster trajectory, and I think we're now on to something that can really do that. So as I look at it and sort of back up from the 90-day clock kind of thing, I'm incredibly excited. I'm excited about the plans that we have on the product side and also on the go-to-market side, and in particular the IBM announcement."

China's strength was surprising even to Apple

As iPhone, iPad, and Mac sales slow in developed markets like the US, Apple has been looking to emerging regions for growth. China, in particular, is viewed as a big target. Apple generated about 16 percent, or $5.94 billion, of its overall $37.43 billion in revenue from the country in the fiscal third quarter.

In the second quarter, Apple had made nearly $10 billion in sales in China as it benefited from its recent partnership with China Mobile, the world's biggest wireless carrier. In 2011, Apple made only $12.5 billion from China the entire year. The year before, it made only $2.8 billion.

"China honestly was surprising to us ... We thought it would be strong but it well went past what we thought. We came in at 26 percent of revenue growth, including our retail. And if you look at the units, the unit growth was really off the charts across the board. iPhone 48 percent up. That compares to a market estimate of 24 percent, so growing it two times the market. iPad was up as well [in the 50 percent range], as I've mentioned before. The Mac was up 39 percent, and that's versus a market in China that's also contracting along with markets in most parts of the world and China was projected to contract by 5 percent.

And so we're seeing some substantial strength there and the thing that's actually growing the most is the iTunes software and services category, which has the App Store and etc., and that area is almost doubling year-over-year.

And so it's very, very exciting what we're seeing there. We are still in the process of rolling out, along with our partner China Mobile, the TD-LTE into more cities and we're still in early going on that. That just started in January, as you know. And my understanding is that later this year, there will be a license for the other operators to begin shipping FDD-LTE, which I think is another big opportunity in China."

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About the author

Shara Tibken is a senior writer for CNET focused on Samsung and Apple. She previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal. She's a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."

 

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