Apple's fiscal fourth-quarter report will close the books on a sobering year for the maker of the iPhone and iPad.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The results, due out after the stock market closes Monday, are expected to mark Apple's third consecutive quarter of declining earnings from the previous year. The slump followed a decade-long streak of rising profits that began shortly after Apple Inc. introduced the iPod in 2001. The company then broke even more new ground with the subsequent releases of the iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010.
Apple hasn't forged any new frontiers since then, while rivals such as Google Inc., Samsung Electronics, Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have come up with their own smartphones and tablet computers to siphon sales away from the iPhone and iPad. Many of the alternatives offer the same features as Apple's gadgets and sell at less expensive prices.
Those factors have undercut the popularity of both the iPhone and iPad, depressing Apple's earnings and stock price. Apple's shares have recently been hovering between $520 and $530, roughly 25 percent below their peak of $705.07 reached 13 months ago. Over the same stretch, the Standard & Poor's 500 index has climbed by about 20 percent.
Apple's downturn has piqued the interest of activist investor Carl Icahn, who has acquired a 0.5 percent stake in the Cupertino, Calif., company and is now pressing CEO Tim Cook to spend more money buying back Apple's stock. Apple's board has already budgeted $60 billion for buying back stock, but Icahn wants to up the ante to $150 billion. In a recent interview with financial news channel CNBC, Icahn said Cook has assured him that they will discuss the idea after Apple reports its earnings for the three-months ending in late September.
The performance of the iPhone and iPad, as usual, will be the most scrutinized part of Apple's report. IPhone sales got a boost with the Sept. 21 release of the two latest models in the line. For the first time, Apple simultaneously introduced a high-end version called the 5S and a slightly cheaper model called the 5C. Apple has already said it sold at least 9 million of the new iPhones in the latest quarter, even though the 5C is widely believed to have gotten a lukewarm reception.
Apple will have had to sell at least 27 million iPhones in the fiscal fourth quarter to surpass the volume shipped last year. If recent trends continued, the average price for the iPhones sold in the latest quarter would be lower than last year. That's not just because of the introduction of the 5C; more people have been buying older iPhones that Apple sells at a discount, too.
Some of the same problems have been plaguing the iPad. Apple saw its iPad sales decline from the previous year for the first time in the quarter ending in June. To avoid that from happening again in the latest quarter, Apple will have had to have sold at least 14 million iPads. A comment made earlier this week by Cook indicated that Apple had sold fewer than 15 million iPads in the quarter, but the precise amount won't be known until Monday's report.
Apple is hoping to spur more sales of its tablet line with a lighter and thinner model called the iPad Air that goes on sale Nov. 1. Later next month, the company will start selling a new and more expensive version of its iPad Mini that features a higher-definition display screen.
WHY IT MATTERS: Even with a drop in its stock price, Apple is the world's most valuable public company, with a market capitalization of more than $480 billion. Its products also continue to shape technological and cultural trends.
WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts, on average, expect earnings of $7.91 per share on revenue of $36.8 billion, according to FactSet.
LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: In the same period a year ago, Apple earned $8.2 billion, or $8.67 per share, on $36 billion in revenue.