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Earnings preview: Apple to shed light on iPhone 8 launch, Wall Street expects 46M total iPhones sold

By Neil Hughes

Thursday afternoon's quarterly earnings report from Apple will be the first indication the company has given as to the performance of the iPhone 8 since it debuted in late September, though any concrete indication of the performance of the iPhone X will likely remain mum until the conclusion of the holiday period.

Apple's September quarter included the launches of both the iPhone 8 series and the Apple Watch Series 3. Apple will disclose overall iPhone sales, but does not break them down by model, meaning the performance of the iPhone 8 will remain something of a mystery.

Investors have modest expectations for the iPhone 8, which this year is overshadowed by the all-new design of the iPhone X. But total iPhone X sales could be bolstered by reduced prices on the entire lineup, notably last year's iPhone 7, and a new $350 starting price for the iPhone SE -- the cheapest barrier to entry ever for an iPhone.

In all, investors expect that Apple will report sales of 46 million iPhones in the September 2017 quarter, according to Loup Ventures. Despite muted expectations, that would be a slight increase from 2016, when Apple sold 45.5 million iPhones on its way to $46.9 billion in revenue.

For revenue this year, Wall Street consensus calls for $50.8 billion, while earnings per share are expected at $1.66. Investors believe that gross margins will be 38 percent.

Running down the rest of Apple's product line, market consensus calls for sales of 10 million iPads, 5 million Macs, and 3 million Apple Watch units. Apple, however, does not disclose specific sales of the watch, meaning the performance and success of the Series 3 will be spoken about in vague terms.

Analysts have generally taken a long-term view on shares of AAPL given this year's staggered iPhone release. While the iPhone X goes on sale Friday, quantities are expected to be extremely limited, which could push sales of the premium-priced handset beyond the current December quarter and into 2018.

With some reports forecasting that Apple may not catch up with consumer demand for the iPhone X until sometime in the first half of 2018, many analysts have taken the stance that Apple will sell a considerable amount of phones at some point, whenever it can resolve manufacturing issues.

In that sense, Thursday's earnings report for the September quarter is expected to be a minor event.

Beyond the iPhone X, the current December quarter will also see the debut of Apple's $350 HomePod speaker, and the high-end iMac Pro desktop. Both are scheduled to launch in the month of December, meaning their effect on the quarter will be muted.

Apple will report the results of its September quarter this afternoon after markets close. A conference call with analysts and members of the press will follow at 2 p.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. Eastern, and AppleInsider will have full coverage.

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