How Apple Beat the Street — Again

October 22, 2007, 10:03 PM UTC

In the days before Apple’s (AAPL) quarterly earnings report, several analysts hastily raised their estimates for the company’s Q4 profits — as if fearing a repeat of the last four quarters, when the company beat Wall Street’s targets by anywhere from 22% to 46%.

But it was too little too late. As CNNMoney reported at the close of market today, Apple posted sharply higher sales and earnings in the quarter that ended Sept. 29. With revenue of $6.22 billion and earnings of $1.01 cents per share, Apple blew past not only its target of 65 cents a share, but the analysts’ average estimate of 86 cents.

Analyst Shaw Wu of American Technology Research, who had predicted sales of $6.05 billion, proclaimed it an “all-around strong quarter.”

“Very impressive,” said Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster. “Everything is just clipping along.”

What surprised both analysts the most, however, was Apple’s rosy prediction of a blowout Christmas quarter with sales of $9.2 billion and earnings of $1.41 a share — a sharp contrast to the company’s tradition of extremely cautious forward-looking guidance. “It’s the first time in three quarters they’ve given guidance higher than Wall Street’s,” says Munster. “This could push Street estimates up 25% to 30%.”

Apple’s shares closed at all-time record high of 174.36, up 2.31% for the day, and added another 12 points in after-market trading.

How did Steve Jobs & Co. do it?

In a word: Macintosh. The company sold 2.164 million Macs in the quarter, accounting for 62% of the company’s revenue. Sales were up 34% year to year and set a company record for the fall quarter, thanks in large part to back-to-school promotions.

Macintosh market shares are up sharply in Europe and even Japan, where sales have lagged, and Munster estimates that Apple’s worldwide market share could grow from 3% to 3.2% as a result of the Mac surge. Earlier estimates of Apple’s share of the U.S. computer market put it anywhere from 6.2% to 8.1%.

iPhone sales were also impressive — 1.12 million sold in the quarter, with a burst of sales after the September $200 price drop — but because Apple spreads its cellphone revenue across 24 months, the iPhone impact on Q4 earnings was less significant.

The one place where Apple failed to meet expectations was in iPod sales. The company reported 10.2 million iPods sold in the quarter — a shade fewer than the 10.9 million analysts were expecting.

But where it matters most — profitability — Apple continues to shine. Its gross margin for the quarter was 33.6%, up from 29.2% a year earlier. That’s not even in the same ballpark as Apple’s competitors in the cut-throat computer and cellphone industries.

Steve Jobs has clearly learned how to leverage his company’s advantage in design and ease of use to the benefit of Apple’s investors — and the company’s bottom line.

See Apple’s press release here.

For a transcript of the earnings call, click here.

For background, see Apple Earnings Preview: Firing on All Cylinders