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The four questions everyone is hoping Apple will answer today

Update: Apple’s earnings are out, and it seems they are more or less in line with forecasts. Next up, the earnings call, which will hopefully shed some light on the following issues.

Apple’s earnings are coming out shortly, and analysts have already steeled themselves for disappointment. This, despite the fact that Apple is notorious for lowballing estimates of its own future performance and has exceeded analysts’ predictions of its earnings in all but three quarters since 2006.

Looking at earnings is all well and good, but in order to gain an understanding of the mechanics of consumer demand for Apple’s products, which is the real determinant of the company’s future, there are four questions everyone will be attempting to answer based on the data in today’s earnings report and the subsequent call with analysts. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Were the rumors about weak or slowing iPhone 5 demand true?

Near the end of this, Apple’s first fiscal quarter, both the Wall Street Journal and Japan’s Nikkei newswire reported that upstream orders for iPhone 5 parts had been slashed in half, citing an unnamed supplier. The New York Times later appeared to confirm this rumor with Paul Semenza, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch. It seems like an open-and-shut case: The world finally got tired of paying the Apple premium, or Apple’s core markets are saturated, or some other combination of factors means the 10% quarter-on-quarter revenue growth Apple has seen for years is finally over.

But not so fast. A small but dedicated group of Apple bad news-busting journalists and analysts have declared that, in essence, everyone who reported this story got it wrong. The reasons vary, but one is simply that Apple probably over-ordered parts for the iPhone 5 to lock up supply and then cut that order when, as is typical for iPhones, post holiday season demand looked to be weaker than the previous (holiday) quarter. Further parsing of Semenza’s report from NPD DisplaySearch indicates that Apple’s order for iPhone 5 parts may have been reduced by only between 26 percent and 42 percent.

If Apple blew past all expectations for iPhone 5 supplies, some major outlets could have egg on their face. Unless weakness in iPhone 5 demand is real but doesn’t show up until the company’s next (fiscal second) quarter, in which case the rumors will continue.

2. Did the iPad Mini cannibalize sales for the iPad?

This one Apple itself may never answer, because the company doesn’t break out sales by model. But it’s key to the company’s long-term health and indicates a larger trend in technology, which is that consumers appear to be gravitating to less expensive devices that won’t afford Apple its usual hefty margins. Hence the rumors that Apple may be developing a less-expensive phone for the developing world.

If Apple is selling iPad Minis at a rate that is too slow to make up for the difference in profit it makes on the Mini versus the full-size iPad, the company could increase total sales of iPads and still see its tablet revenue shrink.

3. What on earth is Apple doing with all its capital expenditures?

In 2012 Apple spent $10.3 billion on stuff—i.e., capital expenditures, or capex. No one really knows what that is—it might have included, for example, an entire factory owned by Sharp, for manufacturing the displays used in Apple’s mobile devices. To put that in perspective, Intel spent about $12 billion on physical assets, but Intel has to do things like build gigantic microchip fabrication plants that cost up to $5 billion apiece.

It appears that Apple is moving to become more like its primary rival, Samsung, which is a vertically integrated company capable of ingesting raw materials at one end and spitting out finished smartphones from the other. If that means investment in manufacturing infrastructure, that could have profound implications for Apple’s future cost structure and overall competitiveness.

4. Is it all downhill from here?

And, of course, the one question Apple watchers have been asking more and more of late: Has the world’s most valuable company finally peaked? Revenue for the first fiscal quarter of 2012 will reflect two new devices—the iPad mini and the iPhone 5—and it’s also a holiday quarter. Unless three events like that converge again, one seasonal, the other two product cycles with their own rhythms, and it’s the case that consumers are truly losing their taste for Apple products, this could be the biggest quarter the company will ever have.

Read the rest of our coverage from Apple’s first quarter earnings report:

Apple’s $54.5 billion quarter, in charts

Why Apple doesn’t care that iPads are cannibalizing sales of Macs

Apple CEO Tim Cook on rumors of slackening iPhone demand: They’re meaningless

No phablet for you, says Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple plans to give a third of its $137 billion cash hoard back to investors

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