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Will Apple find holiday cheer?

Analysts are eager to get the company's take on the holiday shopping season but worry that this year no one can accurately foretell the immediate future.

As Apple Computer prepares to offer its forecast for holiday sales, analysts are eager to hear the company's take but worry that no one can accurately foretell what the end of the year will bring.

"That's just a crapshoot," Needham analyst Charles Wolf said Tuesday. He added that the key question this year is not the level of consumer confidence now, but what it is the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.

"To try to predict that is really hard," he said.

On Wednesday, Apple will report earnings for its fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 30, and it is expected to offer its predictions for the current quarter. Several analysts said they expect Apple to meet estimates for the just-concluded quarter and are mainly concerned about the company's immediate future.

Just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Apple appeared to be on track for its fourth quarter. At a Sept. 5 investor conference, Chief Financial Officer Fred Anderson declined to say whether Apple would meet its estimates but said the fact that the company had not warned was a good sign.

"If you don't hear from us, that's obviously good news," Anderson said, according to Reuters.

In July, Anderson had predicted that the company's results for its fourth quarter would closely match the $1.48 billion in revenue and 17 cents per share in earnings from its third quarter.

Analysts expect the company to report earnings of 16 cents per share for the quarter, according to First Call, with several analysts pegging revenue around the level estimated by the company.

Apple shares, which were pummeled in late summer 2000, have experienced only a modest decline this year, while other PC makers have seen substantial declines. Apple started the year around $15 a share and is now trading at $18. The stock price also remained relatively steady in the days since Sept. 11.

One factor that may or may not be evident in Apple's quarterly results is what some say was an atypical sales pattern late in its fourth quarter.

A handful of resellers told CNET News.com that Apple initially seemed poised to use its frequent tactic of inducing dealers to order extra products at the end of the quarter. Such a move helps boost sales figures. But Apple ultimately backed off, the resellers said.

Analysts suggested several explanations for the apparent switch, including the possibility that Apple knew it had met financial estimates, so it changed tactics; that supply or distribution disruptions made it difficult to fill orders in late September; or that Apple didn't want to overstock stores and distributors before the release of new laptops. New iBooks were announced Tuesday.

An Apple representative declined to comment.

Analysts discounted the possibility that Apple just decided to give up on meeting estimates for the quarter. Had that been the case, analysts said, the company would have issued an earnings warning, following the lead of Gateway and Compaq Computer--two other computer makers with quarters ending in September.

"If (Apple was) going to tank the quarter, they would have just preannounced," said David Bailey, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison.

Analysts added that Apple, unlike Compaq and Gateway, had a better chance of making its numbers despite the slump in spending after the terrorist attacks.

"Because the majority of Apple's sales go through distribution, they could have been somewhat buffered from the events of Sept. 11," Bailey said.

Wolf also noted that Apple could have benefited from strong education sales, which would have come in before the attacks.

As for the near future, Wolf noted that because Apple's market share is so small, it has the opportunity to do well even in a bad economy--if it introduces the right products. However, he noted, the reverse can also be true.

"Last September, when consumer sales were still strong, they imploded," he said.