A shopper checks out an Apple computer at a Best Buy store in Corpus Christi,… (Eddie Seal / Bloombert News )
It's not just anticipation for a much-hyped tablet device that's boosting Apple Inc.'s cult status with investors.
The consumer electronics giant nailed its most profitable quarter ever Monday, blowing past expectations with a $3.4-billion profit in the last three months of 2009 -- nearly a 50% jump from a year earlier -- on a 34% rise in revenue.
The record performance came on the heels of a blockbuster holiday shopping season in which Apple continued to lure shoppers without discounting its products that command premium prices, particularly its line of Mac personal computers. Apple sold 3.4 million of them in its fiscal first quarter, up 33% from a year earlier, in an unexpectedly strong sales surge.
"The Mac business is quite simply on fire," said Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster.
Even as the economic downturn pinched wallets, Apple sales soared. And Apple is becoming increasingly adept at exporting its brand abroad, analysts said. In the process, with a market capitalization of $183 billion, Apple has become the second-largest technology company in the nation, trailing software giant Microsoft Corp.
"It's particularly impressive in light of macroeconomic challenges," said Kaufman Bros. analyst Shaw Wu.
Credit the continued popularity of the iPhone and iPod media player. During the quarter, Apple sold 8.7 million iPhones and 21 million iPods. Sales of the iPhone were lighter than analysts expected but still doubled as Apple rolled into several major new markets, including China and South Korea.
Apple has been aggressively adding carriers and countries offering the iPhone as it faces rising competition from rivals with similar devices such as Google Inc., which this month introduced its Nexus One phone and Motorola's Droid.
If the iPhone, which is currently available only through AT&T, becomes available on another wireless carrier, such as Verizon, Apple could get access to millions of potential new customers.
Still, some analysts question whether Apple can maintain this kind of momentum on the strength of the iPhone. Before the iPhone, Apple pumped up sales with the iPod, but the MP3 market has become crowded and sales have slowed, down 8% in the first quarter.
That may be where Apple's latest creation comes in. It remains to be seen whether the gadget, rumored to be a tablet computer, can live up to the hype. Apple on Monday hinted at the unveiling of a tablet that analysts expect will allow users to watch movies, read books and surf the Internet.
Apple has said only that it plans to introduce a product at an event in San Francisco on Wednesday. A revolutionary product that catches on with the public, not just the Apple faithful, could become another cash cow for Apple. Some analysts are waiting to see what the device is and how much it costs.
"The new products we are planning to release this year are very strong, starting this week with a major new product that we're really excited about," Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said in a statement. Jobs may make a rare public appearance Wednesday.
On a conference call with analysts, Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook declined to give a preview. "I wouldn't want to take away your joy of surprise on Wednesday when you see our latest creation," he said.
On Monday, investors contented themselves with financial results that topped Wall Street expectations.
Apple earned $3.4 billion, or $3.67 per share, in its first quarter, which ended Dec. 26, compared with $2.3 billion, or $2.50 a share, in the year-earlier period. Revenue topped $15.7 billion with 42% of sales in the U.S. The results benefited from an accounting change in how Apple records iPhone sales. It now posts them at the time each gadget is sold rather than over the course of 24 months.
Apple forecast second-quarter profit of $2.06 to $2.18 a share, well above analyst estimates of $1.77 a share. It also estimated that sales would be $11 billion to $11.4 billion. Analysts were expecting revenue of $10.4 billion. Apple is noted for issuing conservative guidance to investors.
The quarterly results were released after Apple shares rose 2.7% or $5.32 to close at $203.07.