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Growth potential seen in steadily maturing iPod market

Though growth in Apple's iPod unit shipments has been declining since the end of 2006, price cuts like those applied to the iPod shuffle on Tuesday and cheaper Internet-capable models down the line should help the company reverse course and maintain a steady rate of growth through 2009, says one Wall Street analyst.

In a note to clients on Wednesday, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster noted that Apple was able to maintain the price of its third-generation iPod shuffle players for over 500 days, more than twice as long as the previous price levels which lasted only about 200 days.

The price cut (38 percent) on the 1GB model (to $49) and introduction of a 2GB model at $69 will result in the average selling price (ASP) of the shuffle line falling from $67 to $55, Munster estimated. Assuming no change in his shuffle unit estimate for the current March quarter, the analyst believes segment revenue would increase 12 percent year-over-year compared to his current estimate of 15 percent.

"However, we believe unit numbers will see a modest uptick due to the price decrease," he wrote. "As a result, we are increasingly confident in our estimate of 11.3 million iPods in the March quarter."

Additionally, Munster said he believes that even a modest uptick in shuffle units would neutralize the impact of the price cut on iPod ASPs and overall iPod revenues. Apple's iPod business should also see help from "cheaper, innovative iPods with Wi-Fi and multi-touch technology" in the not too distant future.

These assumptions and others lead the analyst to remain bullish on shares of the Cupertino-based electronics maker, which he rates a Buy with a $250 price target. He's now modeling Apple to sustain an average iPod unit shipment growth rate of 15 percent through fiscal 2009, compared to the 5 percent reported for the most recent December quarter and an estimated 7 percent for the current quarter.