Apple earnings preview: More questions than answers

It’s been three months since we’ve taken Apple’s financial pulse, which can only mean that it’s time for a check-up. The company is set to announce its latest quarterly earnings on Tuesday, July 23, with a conference call to follow at 2 p.m. PT/5 p.m. ET. Macworld will once again be providing live coverage of that analyst briefing and its attendant Sisyphean question-and-answer session.

In terms of actual, shipping products, the landscape in Apple’s fiscal third quarter is not much changed from the last go-round. While Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference has come and gone, most of what the company showed off there has yet to hit the market. So unless analysts plan to bombard Apple with questions about the latest revamp to the MacBook Air—“How do you get such amazing battery life?” “This is Tim. We’ve harnessed the power of magical wood elves.”—or pepper executives about the updated AirPort Time Capsule—“Why doesn’t it have a multitouch screen?!”—expect much of the talk to focus around analysts’ favorite area of interest: the future.

The numbers game

Apple’s still doing gangbusters—don’t let anybody tell you different. The company’s guidance for the current quarter forecasts revenue between $33.5 and $35.5 billion, with gross margins between 36 and 37 percent and operating expenses between $3.85 billion and $3.95 billion.

If Apple hits those numbers, which it should since the company provides guidance it’s confident of reaching, then that would make revenue roughly flat compared to last year’s third quarter. In the year-ago quarter, Apple brought home an even $35 billion, with a profit $8.8 billion, or $9.32 per diluted share.

Of course, Apple no longer forecasts its profits. But analysts are expecting earnings of around $7.31 per share on revenue of $35.09 billion. That’d be a lower profit compared to last year—expect much to be made of that, if it pans out. As for Apple’s stock price, it’s still hovering around the $425 mark, a bit up from where it was last quarter.

Mr. Television

Fortunately, the Apple rumor mill is always here to pick up the slack for, you know, actual news. And one big topic therein continues to be Apple entering the television business. A plethora of reports from the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and other sources hint that Apple is negotiating with cable companies, television networks, and perhaps even that guy in the alley next door who sells TVs out of the back of a truck.

Streaming video continues to be as hot as a MacBook Pro compressing and encoding HD video, and there’s little doubt that Apple wants in on the market in some fashion. Exactly what form that will take is still shrouded in the fog that rolls in off the San Francisco Bay, and don’t expect Tim Cook to be forthcoming about such information when asked. (We’re talking to you, perennial Apple-television-hopeful Gene Munster.)

What we do know is that the Apple TV continues to be a pretty successful hobby for Apple; Cook may even grace us with some figures about just how well the set-top box is selling currently, or let us know whether the company’s most recent partnerships, including HBO Go and WatchESPN, are performing well.

Hold the phone

Lest anyone risk forgetting it, the iPhone is still the king of kings in Apple’s product hierarchy. Expectations are high for a new model going into next quarter, and the Internet continues to predict a low-cost, plastic-backed iPhone model with an insistence that borders on the monomaniacal.

But Cook and Co.’s playbook is clear here, too. Despite analysts trying to divine whether Apple wants to capture the low-end of the market, expect rebuttals in the form of Apple’s solid customer satisfaction numbers with the iPhone (a favorite figure of Tim Cook’s) and the markets where the iPhone seems to be holding onto solid ground, such as here in the U.S..

And, in the spirit of driving the financial analysts really crazy, let’s remember that Tim Cook is probably sitting on the other end of the speakerphone, checking his email in iOS 7 on his iPhone 5S.

Odds and ends

There are plenty of other topics for Tim Cook, chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer, and analysts to talk about on Tuesday. Like … uh … some heat wave we’re having here, right? Right?

But just in recent days we’ve had rumors of iPads with larger displays floating around, which analysts might try to wiggle into their questioning, and of course, there might be some questions around the recent ebook price-fixing ruling that Tim Cook will no doubt deftly deflect. In business news, Apple recently acquired two mapping-related companies to presumably bolster its built-in iOS service (soon to come to OS X as well). Whether or not that’s something analysts will be interested in remains to be seen.

The company’s commitment to education might also come up, especially in light of its deal with the L.A. Unified School District to provide iPads to thousands of public-school students in the city. And, of course, the company’s ongoing dividend plan—which it expanded in April—may come up as well, since analysts are ever concerned about what Apple plans to do with its chock-full bank accounts.

But, as for anything else, say it along with us, folks: “I’m not going to talk about future products today.”

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