Apple: What've you done for me lately

Shares of the iPod maker more than doubled in 2007. With Macworld coming up, what can Steve Jobs and Apple do for an encore this year?

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By Kenneth Musante, staff writer

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NEW YORK ( -- Apple had a banner year in 2007. The stock more than doubled thanks to strong sales of the new iPhone, revamped iPods, and updated Macs.

But that was last year. Now investors want to know if Apple can live up to Wall Street's lofty expectations for 2008.

Tech stocks have taken a big tumble so far this year and Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) is no exception, with shares falling about 10 percent.

With that in mind, investors will be paying a lot of attention to what Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs has to say during his keynote address at the company's Macworld show on January 15th.

Last year, Jobs unveiled the iPhone at Macworld. So Wall Street is hoping Jobs can once again deliver some exciting news to get the stock back on track.

A new 'Touch' for the iPod

Investors will definitely be looking for any announcements about updates to the company's popular iPod. Despite that product's runaway success, some analysts say that Apple has started to reach the saturation point with its portable media player. "Everyone who wants one has one," said Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil.

Morgan Keegan analyst Tavis McCourt also wrote in a recent report that he's concerned about slowing growth in iPod sales.

He cited the fact that the number of iPods sold in the company's fiscal fourth quarter, which ended in September, increased just 17 percent from a year ago, down from 50 percent growth in unit sales in the company's fiscal first quarter.

But just before the holiday season, Apple released the iPod Touch - basically an iPhone without the phone. The device's ability to access the Internet and its emphasis on video makes it more than just a standard iPod. So analysts said they are confident the iPod Touch could rejuvenate sales growth for the iPod product line in 2008.

Apple could also benefit from falling component prices. McCourt noted that NAND flash memory chips, which are used in the iPhone, iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle, and iPod Touch, have been getting steadily cheaper, which could boost the amount of profit Apple generates from the iPod and other consumer electronics devices.

And analysts said that other announcements from Macworld may also be viewed positively by investors. Trip Chowdhry of Global Equities Research, predicts Apple will unveil an update to Apple TV, a device that lets people view videos stored in their iTunes library on their television sets.

There has also been speculation that Apple will announce plans to allow movie rentals on iTunes through a partnership with News Corp.'s (NWS, Fortune 500) Fox studio. Gottheil said that even though revenue from iTunes is still relatively small, anything that can help increase movie and music downloads would be helpful since this should also boost demand for new iPods.

Thin is in

Of course, Apple still relies heavily on computer sales -- even though the company dropped the word "Computer" from its corporate name last year and now generates more than half of its total sales from non-Mac products.

At this year's Macworld, analysts suspect the company will round out its MacBook line with a new ultra light notebook.

A highly portable computer with long battery life and a flash drive instead of a delicate hard disk is something that Apple doesn't have right now, said Chowdhry.

He argues that if Apple unveils a new MacBook, that could open Apple's laptop line even further to new customers.

Gottheil disagreed with the idea that an ultra portable would bring in new customers. Still, he said that even if Apple simply got existing Apple fans to buy newer MacBook models, this would still benefit Apple because the new MacBooks would likely generate higher profit margins.

And that would be good news for Apple shareholders since Mac sales have been what's really driving growth for the overall company lately.

In the company's fiscal fourth quarter, Mac sales rose 40 percent from a year earlier to $3.41 billion. iPod sales, on the other hand, increased only 4 percent to $1.6 billion. So if the iPod Touch isn't as big a hit as analysts expect, the company will need to depend even more on the Mac to keep sales and profits growing.

No worms in this stock

With all this in mind, how will Apple's stock fare this year. David Bailey of Goldman Sachs wrote in a report earlier this month that he doesn't believe 2008 will be as "explosive" as last year, but that Apple's stock should head higher over the next twelve months.

He expects Apple's upcoming fiscal first-quarter earnings announcement, which includes sales during the key holiday shopping season, to prove that Apple is still a great growth stock.

Apple will report its results on January 22. Analysts predict revenue will grow 32 percent to about $9.4 billion and that profits will soar 40 percent to $1.60 a share.

Apple's string of healthy results come at a steep price, however. The stock trades at nearly 35 times fiscal 2008 earnings estimates.

That's much higher than the valuations for rivals Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and personal computer maker Dell (DELL, Fortune 500), which trade at 19 times and 13 times earnings forecasts for this fiscal year respectively.

Still, Apple has consistently smashed Wall Street's earnings per share estimates over the past year. And the company's projected earnings growth rates of 30 percent this fiscal year and 22 percent a year, on average, for the next few years, is much higher than most other large tech companies.

Chowdhry said investors should probably not try and make short-term trades on the stock though. He warns that investors who buy now just because they think Jobs will make an announcement at Macworld that will send the stock higher could be setting themselves up for disappointment.

But analysts said Apple is a good buy for long-term investors who can avoid being influenced by day-to-day volatility. Investors who want to make a bet on the company's ability to keep coming out with the hottest new gadgets and delivering strong earnings will eventually be rewarded.

Analysts quoted in the story do not own shares of Apple.  To top of page

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