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Update: Apple tops lowered 4Q estimates; expects strong 1Q

Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) topped analysts' reduced earnings estimates in its fourth quarter Wednesday. Assuming the shipping delays of its popular G4 and iBook PCs are a thing of the past, the PC maker appears to be headed for a blowout first quarter.

With a backlog of more than $700 million in computers already sold, Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) finds itself in the unique position of receiving pats on the back for topping the Street estimate (albeit a reduced estimate) this quarter and the ability to promise an even bigger upside in its next quarter.



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Company officials said it expects its first-quarter sales to improve between 20 percent to to 25 percent versus the first quarter of fiscal 1999.

This time around, Apple pocketed $90 million, or 51 cents a share, on sales of $1.34 billion. However, those sales figures represent a 14 percent drop from the year-ago period.

First Call consensus expected the PC maker to earn 45 cents a share in the quarter.

That estimate was lowered from 76 cents a share earlier this quarter after Apple warned that a shortfall in high-speed chips for its G4 Power Macs would crimp sales and earnings.

Apple shares closed off 3 21/32 to 64 1/32 ahead of the earnings report but the stock moved up more than $4 a share in after-hours trading.

Including a $37 million gain from the sale of about 3 million shares of ARM Holdings Plc., Apple earned $111 million, or 63 cents a share, in the quarter.

4Q delays result in huge backlog

"We are delighted by the response to our new products -- we have received orders for over 250,000 new iMacs in the first week since its announcement, and over 300,000 iBooks since its announcement in late July," said interim CEO Steve Jobs in a prepared release. "We are geared up to ship all of our products in high volume this quarter."

CFO Fred Anderson said Apple now has an order backlog of more than $700 million, setting the table for what could be a huge first quarter.

"Next quarter will be the first in which we will have all four product families" in full production, Anderson said. "Units shipped and revenue will be up significantly from the prior and year-ago quarter quarters."

First Call consensus expects Apple to return a profit of 88 cents a share in the first quarter.

Taiwanese earthquake had minimal effect

Anderson said the Taiwanese earthquake last month had very little impact on the PC maker's production.

"There was no structural damage to any production facilities," Anderson said. "We did lose power for the last week of the quarter. However, we expect no material impact from the situation in Taiwan."

Anderson said Apple shipped 772,000 units in the quarter down 7 percent from the year-ago quarter. iMacs accounted for 58 percent of the shipments while Power Macs and Power Books represented 28 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

In the quarter, Apple improved its gross profit margins to 28.7 percent, up from 26.8 percent in the year-ago quarter. International sales accounted for more than 35 percent of its total sales in the quarter.

Profit margins to decline, expenses to rise in 1Q

Anderson also said Apple expects gross profit margins to decline sequentially due to increased operating expenses as well as the mixture of all its product lines.

"Operating expenses will increase significantly next quarter for advertsing and other promotional activities," Anderson said. "Also we expect the tax rate to increase to 25 percent."

Apple shares were battered in mid-September after the company warned that it would miss analysts' estimates due to Motorola Inc.'s (NYSE: MOT) to keep up with demand for its high-end G4 processors.

To avoid these problems in the future, Apple said it has reconfigured the processor speeds in its G4 line to better match demand with chip availability from Motorola. The new Power Mac G4 configurations will now include Power PC G4 processors running at 350 MHz, 400 MHz and 450 MHz, and will be priced at $1,599, $2,499 and $3,499, respectively.

Its 500 MHz G4 processor will not be available until the first calendar quarter of next year.

IBM will start cranking out G4 chips

Apple also announced today that International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) will begin manufacturing G4 processor chips in the first half of calendar 2000.

Apple officials said Motorola and IBM worked out the production agreement and had little to offer in the way of details.

Despite the rocky fourth quarter, Apple's financial performance in fiscal 1999 was outstanding.

For the year, it raked in $601 million, or $3.61 a share, on sales of more than $6.1 billion compared to a profit of $309 million, or $2.10 a share, on sales of $5.9 billion in fiscal 1998.

First Call consensus expects Apple to pocket $3.12 a share in fiscal 2000.

Apple shares hit a 52-week high of 80 1/8 in September after falling to a low of 31 5/8 in December.

Sixteen of the 23 analysts following the stock maintain either a "buy" or "strong buy" recommendation.