Apple smashes Mac, iPhone sales records again

Execs duck questions about Wednesday's rumored tablet event during conference call

Apple reported record Mac and iPhone sales today, marking the second consecutive quarter the company has reset the bar for both product lines.

"An impressive quarter," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "Apple has resumed the kind of growth it had prior to the Great Recession."

In the quarter than ended Dec. 31, Apple sold 3.36 million Macs, a 33% increase over the same quarter the year before and 309,000 more than the previous record, which was set in 2009's third calender quarter.

"This was our best quarter ever," Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, said during an earnings call with Wall Street analysts on Monday afternoon. "We set new records in Macs and iPhones."

Globally, desktop Mac sales were up 70% year-over-year to 1.2 million, said Oppenheimer, confirming earlier estimates by outside analysts and researchers, who had bet on breakout sales of the refreshed iMacs, introduced last October.

MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air unit sales, meanwhile, were up only 18% for the quarter. But even with the jump in iMac sales, Apple's notebooks outpaced desktops by nearly a 2 to 1-margin; Apple sold 2.1 million laptops last quarter.

Most analysts had predicted smaller sales totals from Apple, but Brian Marshall of BroadPoint AmTech nearly nailed it earlier this month with his estimate of global Mac sales at 3.3 million.

When asked if Apple could continue to post that kind of Mac growth -- in other words, be able to return to the pre-recession rates of 40% and more -- Tim Cook, the company's chief operating officer, declined, as he put it, to "predict the future."

"The Mac growth rate was twice the [PC] market's [17%]," said Cook, citing recent estimates from research firm IDC. (Actually, IDC put the global PC sales growth rate for the fourth quarter at 15.2%, not the 17% that Cook used.)

"And in some of the markets that we're in, the Mac growth was absolutely spectacular," Cook said. Sales in China increased by more than 100% compared with the year earlier, he said. Sales in Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain were also up more than 40%. Usually, Apple does not break out sales country-by-country.

Gottheil wasn't so squeamish about commenting on Apple's future. "I think the growth rate has to decline," he said, noting that once the quarters during the downturn have been exhausted for comparisons, Apple would find it much harder to continue posting growth rates in the 30% and above-range. "I think there's been a certain loss of momentum for Macs," Gottheil said, citing the decline in average selling prices (ASPs) for Apple's computers.

In the last two years, he said, Mac unit sales have averaged a growth rate of 20%, but revenues from those system sales have increased an average of only 11%. "Apple took a big hit [during the recession]," said Gottheil.

iPhone keeps on giving

Apple also smashed iPhone sales records last quarter, selling 8.7 million iPhones, a 100% jump over the previous year and almost 1.4 million more units than the previous record of 7.4 million, which like the Mac sales record, was set in the third calendar quarter of 2009. More than 200,000 were sold in China since the launch there last October, Cook said.

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