Apple sold nearly 50 million iPhones in the fiscal 4th quarter, reports Jefferson Graham on #TalkingTech.
By Jefferson Graham

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple reported another coveted quarter: A 31% spike in earnings and better-than-expected revenue, initially sending company shares up 3% in after-hours trading Tuesday.

But the future may not be as bright. It cautioned its current quarter will generate $75.5 billion to $77.5 billion in revenue, short of the $77 billion analysts expect on average. That, in turn, sent Apple AAPL shares down in extended trading.

Apple reported earnings of $11.1 billion, or $1.96 per share, on revenue of $51.5 billion for its fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 26. The results exceeded analysts’ earnings forecasts of $1.88 per share and revenue of $51.1 billion.

It was the 12th straight quarter in which Apple beat earnings’ estimates.

“Fiscal 2015 was Apple’s most successful year ever, with revenue growing 28% to nearly $234 billion,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement announcing the results. “We are heading into the holidays with our strongest product lineup yet.”

The holiday forecast, however, may unnerve investors who have expressed concern that stellar sales of iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus last year set the financial bar too high for Apple to generate similar growth this year.

The narrative of any quarter for Apple starts and ends with iPhone sales. It accounts for nearly two-thirds of Apple’s revenue and an even larger portion of its profits.

The company’s franchise product led the way. Apple sold 48.05 million units, including iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, introduced Sept. 9 and on sale Sept. 25.

Analysts polled by Fortune forecast Apple to sell 48.72 million iPhones during the September quarter, up 24% from a year earlier.

“(Long-term expectations) is the big, black cloud around Apple,” says Daniel Ives, managing director for FBR Capital Markets. “The street is laser-focused on guidance around the new iPhones for holiday season and into 2016.”

Shares of Apple AAPL are down 5% from three months ago, compared with a dip of 0.5% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Analysts such as BGC Financials’ Colin Gillis, who closely watched iPhone sales’ forecasts for any hint of a slowdown over the last three months of the year, expected the stock drop. He predicted Apple would sell 51 million iPhones, 12 million iPads and 4.8 million MacBooks.

Apple did not break out sales of Apple Watch, introduced in April. But it said the category in which it is grouped grew to $3 billion.

Apple’s fourth-quarter results — traditionally, its second-weakest of the calendar year — included iPhone 6S and 6S Plus shipments in China in September. Last year, Apple waited until December to make the iPhone 5S and 5C available in China.

The Cupertino, Calif., company has been able to buck the trends in China, where the economy — and smartphone sales — are declining. It remained the company’s second-largest market after the Americas, accounting for 24% of sales in the quarter, compared with 13.7% a year ago.

Apple’s slice of the U.S. smartphone market will swell to 43.3% this year, from 42.3% in 2014 and 40% in 2013, according to eMarketer estimates. The Android market should be 51.7% this year, compared with 51.3% in 2014 and 50.5% in 2013.

Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz on Twitter: @jswartz.

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