The Day Apple Left The Tech World’s Collective Mouth Agape

$46.33 billion in revenue. It’s a number the biggest and best tech companies in the world can only dream to hit in a year. Apple hit it in one quarter. $13.06 billion in profit. It’s a number no tech company would ever aspire to in one quarter because it’s ridiculous. The only companies that have ever thought about such numbers are oil companies. And even then, only 3 of them have actually hit it. Ever.

Until yesterday.

I’ve already tried to give some context to the stunning Q1 2012 results that Apple posted. But the truth is that they’re still unbelievable. Perhaps the next step should be to figure out how they could post such numbers.

The simple answer is that Apple’s iPhone sales were off the charts. 37 million units sold is mind-boggling when the previous record was 20 million, set in Q3 2011. A year ago, in the same holiday quarter, Apple sold “just” 16 million iPhones. That was also a record at the time and lead to record revenue and profit at the time. This year, Apple quite simply took things to the next level — and then went a level beyond that.

Because the iPhone is over 50 percent of Apple’s revenues, amazing iPhone sales equates to amazing revenues. Again, the simple answer. But to figure out why this quarter was so far ahead of any other quarter, you have to go deeper. It was really a confluence of events.

First of all, this past quarter was set up by the preceding quarter, which saw Apple fall short of Wall Street expectations for the first time in years. But as we noted at the time, this was misleading. Apple surpassed their own expectations (which isn’t surprising given that they’re always low), but failed to meet Wall Street’s simply because Wall Street’s numbers were lazy. Analysts didn’t take into account the fact that the new version of the iPhone did not launch in the summertime, as it had in years past. Because it did not — and again, the iPhone is about half of Apple’s revenue — there was no burst in iPhone sales that Apple usually sees in Q4.

Instead, that burst came in Q1 — last quarter. And unlike previous years, this burst was compounded because Q1 is also Apple’s holiday quarter. A new iPhone plus holiday shopping season is apparently like gasoline on a fire. Now we know.

But it would be foolish to think that Apple’s big numbers were only about the iPhone. Remember, Apple set new records in Mac and iPad sales as well. The iPad in particular is interesting because while it’s Apple’s newest business, it’s already the second-largest in terms of revenue. This past quarter, 20 percent of revenue came from iPad sales.

The third-biggest source of revenue is Mac sales — they accounted for 14 percent of Apple’s revenue last quarter. In other words, 87 percent of Apple’s revenue last quarter was from products that all saw record sales.

The lone dim spot in Apple’s numbers were iPod sales, which continue to decline year-over-year. But because the other businesses have grown so massive, so quickly, the iPod only accounts for 5 percent of Apple’s revenues now. Pretty soon — maybe even next quarter — the iTunes Store itself will be a bigger money-maker for the company. When you consider that iTunes (including the App Store) was initially set up to be run as a break-even business, this is impressive.

Something else to consider: the iPhone, iPad, and Mac have the highest margins amongst Apple major products. The iPhone 4S, because it is largely based off of the design of the iPhone 4, probably has one of the best margins that Apple has ever seen. That rings especially true when you hear that Apple’s overall gross margin for the quarter was 44.7 percent. It’s a number so big that Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer said he couldn’t recall ever seeing a number so high in his 15 years of service. And he was skeptical that Apple would ever hit it again.

That huge margin meant huge profit. In fact, it meant profit the likes of which had never been seen before by a technology company.

Something else: Q1 2012 for Apple happened to span 14 weeks. This was unusual, and Apple was quick to note as much in both their press release and on the earnings call. Normally, quarters span 13 weeks (do the math: 13 x 4 = 52). You simply cannot discount an extra week of sales. And you especially cannot discount it during the holiday quarter.

And one more thing: the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in October drove people all around the world to Apple Stores to pay their respects. When people visit Apple Stores, they don’t often walk away empty handed. And what better way to pay respect to Jobs than to buy a product from the company he cared so much about? It’s a delicate subject, but worth mentioning.

Again, this monster quarter was all about a confluence of events. It was about a new iPhone launch during Apple’s typically busiest quarter merged with a newer product, iPad, coming into its own, and the Mac continuing its methodical growth. Add to that amazing margins plus one more week of sales — and the fact that Apple as a whole has been killing it for several years now across the board — and you get a jaw-dropping quarter. It all came together.

Next question: will Apple be able to replicate the magic next quarter? Well, no. The quarter after the holiday one is typically weaker as consumer spending cools. And when you consider that it will span the regular 13 weeks instead of 14, you have two things working against it. Add to that the fact that the iPhone 4S will no longer be a new product, and you have another dip. There could be a new iPad in the quarter — but it may only go on sale at the tail-end. Or it may not be on sale until the following quarter — we’ll see. Either way, that probably dings iPad sales a bit next quarter too.

But even with all those things working “against” Apple next quarter, Oppenheimer still gave guidance of $32.5 billion in revenue. That would be Apple’s second-best quarter ever. And again, Apple always low-balls such numbers, so perhaps $35 billion in a more reasonable guess.

In other words, Apple may only have the second-best quarter of any tech company ever in terms of revenue next quarter. And profits may only be near the bottom of the all-time top 20 amidst the oil empires. Boo hoo.

[photo: flickr/ConvenienceStoreGourmet]