The iPad Air has been warmly received but is Apple losing its bite?

As growth falters and gizmos dry up, there are concerns the tech firm's boss is failing to do enough to hold off its rivals

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, it was as robust an earnings report as investors could have hoped for. Apple's latest set of quarterly numbers, posted after the market close on Monday, brought news of record iPhone sales and net profits of $7.5bn (£4.6bn) over the three months to the end of September on revenues of $37.5bn. The figures were better than what Wall Street's finest had pencilled in for the tech behemoth, which went on to forecast a strong performance over the crucial holiday selling season, anticipating revenues of between $55bn and $58bn in the three months to December.

"We are winning with our products in all the ways that are most important to us, in customer satisfaction, in product usage and in customer loyalty," Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, crowed in a subsequent call with analysts. "Our relentless focus on providing innovation that enhances our customers' lives is evident in the extraordinary list of products that we've launched in just the last couple of months."

And yet, questions linger about the pace of growth at the business, for while the profits were strong, they were not as strong as the result during 2012. Analysts, to be sure, were expecting worse, forecasting $7.93 in earnings per diluted share. Apple delivered $8.26, which is significantly better. Nonetheless, it failed to match the $8.67 per share performance it booked in the three months to September, 2012. To add to the concern was the news that gross margins had retreated to 37 per cent from 40 per cent. They could slip lower during the holiday quarter, the company said, forecasting gross margins in the range of 36.5 per cent to 37.5 per cent. Last year, the company managed margins of 38.6 per cent during the same period (and that figure was itself lower than the 44.7 per cent result in 2011).

The comparison with past performance highlights a question that has been dogging Apple ever since Mr Cook succeeded the late Steve Jobs: can Apple, which for years delivered quarter after quarter of record growth thanks to a string of ground-breaking new products, innovate and get back on the path to growth or must investors brace themselves for further declines in performance as competitors lure fickle consumers seduced by the latest shiny-new-thing?

The issue came up during the phone call on Monday evening, when Sanford Bernstein analyst, Antonio Sacconaghi, queried Mr Cook's upbeat statement about new products. "Tim, you commented in your initial remarks about new product categories. I think this was also something you were explicit about in your April quarterly conference call where you said that consumers and investors should expect new products, including new product categories in the second half of this year and first half of 2014... can you reiterate that we should have that expectation?... I just want to make sure I understand the semantics of what you referred to as a new category?"

Mr Cook responded by referring to the new line of iPhones, the 5C and the more pricey 5S, and the new iPad Air, saying: "What I have said is – I have said that you would see some exciting new products from us in the autumn of this year and across 2014. And I obviously stand by that and you've seen a lot of things over the last couple of months."

But he did not offer anything specific on new categories, which is both understandable – Apple would not advertise a new gadget on a call with analysts – and, for the bears, potentially troubling, as Apple under Mr Cook hasn't yet branched out into a new area. Rumours of an Apple Television to take on Samsung's Smart TVs, or an Apple-branched watch, have thus far proved to be just that – rumours.

While those on the outside await more details on prospective product launches, the delay could further motive shareholders such the activist investor Carl Icahn, who want Apple's management to draw on the company's giant cash reserves to increase the scope of its share buyback plans.

Mr Icahn outlined his thinking in a letter addressed to Mr Cook last week, saying: "While the board's actions to date ($60bn share repurchase over three years) may seem like a large buyback, it is simply not large enough given that Apple currently holds $147bn of cash on its balance sheet, and that it will generate $51bn of [earnings before interest and tax] next year," he wrote, quoting consensus forecast figures and adding that "there is nothing short term about my intentions here".

(The call sparked a row of sorts of between Mr Icahn and Bill Gross, the influential co-chief investment officer at Pimco, who tweeted: "Icahn should leave #Apple alone & spend more time like Bill Gates. If #Icahn's so smart, use it to help people not yourself").

For now, Apple appears to be sticking to its guns on the buyback. But with margins falling and no sign of new gizmos, it might face additional pressure to relent in the months ahead, the forecast-beating results notwithstanding.