Apple's 'product transition' comment fuels speculation

But lower prices unlikely, say analysts

Apple's admission this week that an upcoming "product transition" will affect future profit margins has prompted intense speculation about whether the company will launch new products, refresh existing lines or cut prices.

On Monday, during the company's quarterly conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss its latest earnings, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer repeatedly said Apple would make moves before the end of September that would affect its bottom line.

Oppenheimer announced that Apple's profit margin would likely shrink from 34.8 per cent in the just-concluded quarter to 31.5 per cent in the quarter ending in September. "Second, we've got a future product transition that I can't discuss with you today," Oppenheimer said during the conference call as he spelled out the reasons for the anticipated profit reduction. "One of the reasons that we see gross margin being down sequentially is because of a product transition."

He declined to get specific about the transition, citing Apple's policy of not discussing future product plans.

Analysts, pundits and bloggers, however, haven't been afraid to prognosticate. Several, including Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, believes that Apple will soon significantly revamp its existing MacBook and MacBook Pro laptop lineups.

On a component level, Gottheil believes Apple will incorporate the latest Intel processors, the Centrino 2 quad-core CPU, code-named Montevina, in the upper-end MacBook Pro, boost hard drive capacity and memory in all its laptops and insert a new model sporting a larger-sized screen into the MacBook line.

"Apple also may add multi-touch touchpads to MacBooks," Gottheil said in a research note he issued Wednesday. "Multi-touch is an important differentiator for Apple, and the company said that it would defend its multi-touch patents aggressively." Currently, Apple offers its multi-touch technology only in its iPhone and iPod touch, MacBook Pro systems and ultra-thin MacBook Air.

The "product transition" phrase Oppenheimer used, said Gottheil, is Apple code for a refresh of existing hardware rather than a hint that the company will roll out something completely different. "For the refresh to affect the entire company's gross margin, the product must contribute a significant percentage of Apple's revenue," he argued. "The single model with the greatest revenue is the MacBook, which TBR estimates generated $1.3 billion in sales in 2Q08."

Mike McGuire, a research vice president and analyst with rival research firm Gartner, echoed Gottheil in saying that "product transition" is Apple-speak for a refresh, but questioned the thinking that it would be a notebook revamp.

"Certainly there are some things you could do with the MacBook line, either something with its aesthetics or something more radical, maybe solid-state drives, that would affect the margin," said McGuire. "But maybe it's the Apple TV."

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Gregg Keizer

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