Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Here's what we learned on Thursday about Apple Inc.: People weren't that interested in buying iPhones in the three months ended in September, and the company isn't likely to sell many more phones this holiday season than it did in 2016. 

Here's what we still don't know about Apple: Anything definitive about the company's most pressing business questions: Will people go bananas for the new iPhone X that officially hits store shelves on Friday? And when can Apple make enough of them to satisfy whatever demand there is? 

Apple's sales are fine now, but not more than that. Apple sold 2.6 percent more iPhones in the fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 30, a period that included about a week of sales for the iPhone 8, the less glamorous of two new iPhone models. And the company forecast total revenue will reach $84 billion to $87 billion in the holiday quarter, or about 7 percent to 11 percent higher than a year earlier. 

Great Expectations
Analysts expect the new iPhone models will boost the company's smartphone sales after a couple of years of declining or tepid growth
Source: Bloomberg and Canaccord Genuity (for FY 2018 estimate)
Note: Apple's fiscal year ends each September

Before the company posted results, Mizuho Securities estimated that a revenue forecast of $84 billion to $86 billion would imply a 1 to 2 percent increase in iPhone sales in the December quarter compared with the period a year earlier. Not great, although the upper end of Apple's forecast is higher than Wall Street's estimates. Remember that the company just closed the books on two middling fiscal years of growth, with revenue falling 8 percent and then increasing 6 percent in the 12 months ended in September. That was a respectable rebound, but not the Apple people grew to love. 

But it's truly impossible to know what all this means about Apple's ability to ultimately recover to healthier rates of growth. It's clear Apple is selling as many iPhone X models as it can make, but it's unclear what ultimate consumer interest will be in the $1,000-and-up phone once the company is able to work through production problems on a novel design with some tricky parts. 

Apple optimists say enthusiasm for the iPhone X will push large numbers of people with older iPhones to trade up to the new models. And those folks will be content to wait awhile until they can finally find an iPhone X for sale, maybe in early to mid-2018 when Apple has worked out its production kinks.

The apparently weak sales of Apple's "other" new iPhones can therefore be explained away as people waiting to pick a new phone until they can evaluate both new iPhone models. If that's the case, Apple will get a pass from investors for a quarter or two of soft iPhone sales, figuring the anticipation will simply increase the ardor of potential iPhone X buyers.

On the other hand, the Apple pessimists will say the debut of a $1,000, significantly improved smartphone won't be enough to change smartphone buying trends that are years in the making. In many countries, people on average are holding onto smartphones longer than they used to, in part because they don't feel a compelling need to buy the latest and greatest models. It's not clear Apple can buck the trends. And in China, arguably the most important market for Apple right now, smartphone buyers have more appealing iPhone alternatives than ever.  

The trouble is, we won't know whether the Apple optimists or pessimists will prevail for three or four months at least. At that point, Apple shares will have spent at least 18 months baking in expectations of a sales surge sparked by the 2017 iPhone models. That belief helped drive up Apple's stock market value to a record this week and pushed its valuation to nearly 15 times expected forward earnings, close to the highest level in at least five years. Hopes are high, and keep creeping higher. Shares rose about 3 percent in after-hours trading on Thursday. 

Not Cheap
Apple's stock is fetching a historically high multiple
Source: Bloomberg

Products other than the iPhone picked up the slack in Apple's fiscal fourth quarter and made up for mild iPhone sales growth. Ultimately, though, Apple's fate is still tied to the success of the iPhone. If the much-anticipated sales surge driven by the iPhone X is merely delayed by a few months, then everything will be hunky dory.

If the surge doesn't materialize. ... Well, that would call into question nearly every decision Apple has made. 

Expect the next few months to be a war of Apple narratives. Is Apple the company we've seen this year, which is a relatively slow-growing company lifted by pricing power and fat profits? Or will we see a return to something more like the Apple of 2015, which was a seemingly impossible combination of hyper-growth and a high-profit cash machine?

A lot of investors would still love the slower-growth Apple just fine, but not everyone would. Stay tuned. We still don't know which is the "real" Apple.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The good news for Apple is that its revenue from the region that includes China rose in the fiscal fourth quarter, the first increase since late 2015.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net