Apple's Q1 2009 Earnings Predictions

Apple will release their earnings for the first quarter of the 2009 fiscal year Wednesday afternoon. A number of reports circulating over the past couple of days lend some insight into what we might be able to expect.

AppleInsider discusses a report from Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who predicts based on data from research firm NPD that Apple sold between 2.45 million and 2.55 million Macs in the quarter for a gain of 6-10% over the year-ago quarter. Munster specifically points to an approximately 4% gain in year-over-year Mac sales for the month of December, rebounding from flat or slightly negative growth during November, as a positive sign. Munster also predicts iPod sales in the range of 19 million to 20 million units, above Wall Street's expectations of approximately 18.6 million units.

Fortune, on the other hand, contrasts Munster's view with that of Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi, who views much of the NPD data negatively. The major difference between Munster and Sacconaghi's predictions, however, appears in their iPhone numbers, for which NPD does not provide data. Munster predicts quarterly iPhone sales of 6.4 million, while Sacconaghi predicts sales in the range of 3.5 million to 4 million.

The wild card that may be missed by many investors, as thoroughly described by Andy Zaky at Bullish Cross, is Apple's use of subscription-based accounting for iPhone revenue. The practice, which results in Apple recognizing revenue from a particular iPhone sale over the two-year term of the service contract, resulted in significantly lower revenue numbers for last quarter than would have otherwise been seen.

As Zaky points out (and Fortune summarizes), this discrepancy has resulted in Apple releasing two sets of earnings number, one "official" one calculated according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) using subscription-based accounting of iPhone sales and one calculated using non-GAAP revenue recognizing each iPhone purchase entirely within the quarter in which the sale was made. Because most analysts base their reports on GAAP numbers, many are ignoring the impact of fractional revenue being carried over from sales made in earlier quarters. Consequently, while Q1 2009 most likely saw a decline in iPhone sales from the previous quarter, the impact of this decline on Apple's revenue numbers should be mitigated by this subscription-based accounting.