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Earnings Preview: Apple to have Wall Street's ear this afternoon

Guidance, gross margin, and signs of a rebound in technology spending will be among the key topics financial experts will be paying close attention to when Apple reports results from its third fiscal quarter following the closing bell Tuesday.

On average, analysts polled by Thomson Financial expect the Mac and iPhone maker to report $1.17 in per share earnings on revenues of $8.2 billion, driven by sales of 2.4 million Macs, 9.5 million iPods, and 4 million iPhones. During the year-ago quarter, Apple reported a profit of $1.19 per share on revenues of $7.46 billion, fueled by sales of 2.496 million Macs, 11 million iPods and 717,000 iPhones.

In particular, Wall Street will be looking for signs from Apple that consumer spending on technology products is making a comeback, especially in the wake of comments from industry bellwether Intel last week, which beat estimates while providing guidance for its current quarter well ahead of analysts' expectations.

Generally speaking, the buzz on the Street is that Apple will handily beat expectations for Mac and iPhone sales, given the introduction of lower-price notebooks that drove a 16% increase in Mac sales during the month of June, and the successful launch of the iPhone 3GS. But some experts are wary that the company's aggressive pricing on its new MacBook lines, coupled with its ongoing back-to-school promotion, could come at the expense of its relatively high gross margins.

Andy Zaky, an independent analyst and AppleInsider contributor, believes those concerns are largely unwarranted. He's predicting gross margin to rise sequentially from 36.4% to 36.9%, which would be in-line with historical trends that have seen the Cupertino-based company consistently grow its margins from Q2 to Q3 over the past three years.

"I think this can be explained in part by the simple observation that the conditions determining Q2 gross margins don't substantially change from the conditions determining Q3 gross margins," he said.

"For one, there is generally a marked increase in computer sales in Q3 over Q2, propelled by the start of the back to school shopping season promotion, and computer sales tend to carry better gross margins than do iPod sales. As a percentage of total revenue, Macintosh computers generally comprise of a larger percentage of total revenue in Q3 than in Q2 while iPods tend to dominate Q2 than in any other quarter save Q1."

Zaky also notes that recognized iPhone revenue during Apple's third quarter will also have a significant impact. Namely, it's likely to dethrone the iPod as one of the company's top 2 revenue drivers for the first time in roughly six years. Since 2003, the iPod has either been the largest or second-largest contributor of Apple's total revenue.

Estimates


"Another indication that gross margins will do better this quarter is Apple's unusually aggressive guidance on gross margin," Zaky added. "For Q3, Apple's management has noted that it expects gross margin percentage to reach 33%. This is the most aggressive gross margin forecast Apple has put out to date! Even more bullish than Apple's 32.5% gross margin guidance it gave for Q2. What this indicates is that Apple's managers, those who are in the best position to know how gross margins will perform, have high expectations for whatever reason."

Above are third quarter estimates from ten of the more prominent Wall Street analysts who provide coverage of Apple. Below are Zaky's own detailed third-quarter estimates.

Estimates