Apple Earnings: Hot Quarter, But iPhone May Not Sustain the Heat

Last Updated Apr 21, 2010 1:51 PM EDT

Apple had blow-out quarter with 89.5 percent year-over-year growth in net quarterly profit and a 48.7 percent jump in revenue. Many attribute the strong performance to iPhone sales, but the trend might not last. A closer look at the numbers reveals that both revenue attributable per iPhone unit and iPhone unit sales growth have slowed.

Let's first look at the revenue per unit. This includes not only hardware sales, but additional carrier revenue and sales of Apple-branded and third-party iPhone accessories. (Apologies for the combined look, but that's how Apple reports the numbers.) Calculating the number requires tracking and backing out a flat $25 in subscription revenue that is split over eight quarters. I explained my methodology back in January, because this approach became possible with Apple's adoption of some changes in accounting rules. Back then, the number topped $650 per handset for the quarter ending in December 2009. For this last quarter, I again rain the calculations and came up with $628.92 per handset, a drop of $18.87. I'd attribute the drop between quarters to lower per-unit accessory sales after the holidays.

Now on to iPhone unit sales. There's a lot of hand waving about unit movement, so here's a look at the overall pattern since the first iPhone went onto the market:

Certainly on a year-over-year basis iPhone revenue pushed Apple's results. Notice the growth over time, and remember that the iPhone isn't quite three years old. Early on, unit sales were highly erratic. Over the last five quarters growth has steadied considerably, probably because of the general growth of the smartphone category. Fighting growth in this case is seasonality, as the iPhone is still far more a consumer than business device, and so it doesn't have the steady growth of the RIM (RIMM) Blackberry. Additionally, consumers have many more smartphone choices than in years past.

If the pattern even slightly duplicated previous years, it could mean that unit sales will take off again in two quarters, and news of the iPhone G4 would suggest a launch in two quarters, giving what I think will be a huge sales boost. But Apple also runs the risk that cannibalization will take a toll on iPhones sales until then. The iPad will absorb consumer dollars that otherwise might have gone to an iPhone, and likely at a lower amount of profit because there are no carrier subsidies. Also, because Gizmodo broke the iPhone G4 story outside of Apple's control, the company faces the likelihood of many people may delay purchases until the new model is available. It makes you appreciate the challenge Apple faces as it tries to roll out innovative new products while also maintaining sales of existing products.

Weight image: RGBStock.com user kalilo, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.