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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc's profits and sales streaked past Wall Street forecasts as iPhone and Mac sales hit quarterly records, sending its shares rocketing to all-time highs on Monday.
Sales of Mac computers -- the largest single contributor to Apple's revenue -- jumped a better-than-foreseen 17 percent, but shipments of the closely watched iPhone were held back by problems in producing enough to meet demand, particularly abroad.
"The only surprise would be when Apple doesn't surprise on earnings .... The Mac and iPhone continue to grow and take share, and they're taking share with premium pricing."
IPhone sales had been expected to steal the limelight. Yet unit sales rose 7 percent to 7.4 million, just shy of Wall Street expectations of 7.5 million units.
But it was the company's venerable Mac warhorse, which has steadily expanded market share for years, that starred. The stellar shipment numbers came just days before rival Microsoft Corp was set to unveil its latest version of Windows operating system, to be followed a day later by its own quarterly results.
Mac sales hit 3.05 million in the September quarter, above average estimate for about 2.8 million. Sales of laptop units alone leapt 35 percent, at a time the global PC market is stagnant.
"These are huge numbers tonight. Apple is probably the best growth story in tech, maybe one of the best growth stocks in the market. I bet this stock can go to $250 in six to nine months," said Jane Snorek, analyst at First American Funds.
"This makes me think Apple will have a great Christmas."
Apple's fiscal fourth quarter marked the return of Chief Executive Steve Jobs to his offices at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California. The master showman had a liver transplant while on a six-month leave of absence.
In his absence, Apple showed resilience to the slump in consumer spending that pummeled rivals, such as BlackBerry maker Research in Motion's and Nokia.
"The number of Macs sold shows that Windows 7 has not been a threat to the Apple franchise," said Shannon Cross of Cross Research. "These are phenomenal results."
OUTSIZED HOPES, BLOCKBUSTER RESULTS
According to industry tracker IDC, Apple holds 9.4 percent of the U.S. PC market.
Net profit rose to $1.67 billion, or $1.82 a share, in the quarter ended September 26, from $1.14 billion, or $1.26 a share, in the year-earlier period. Analysts were expecting a profit of $1.42 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Revenue rose 25 percent to $9.87 billion, ahead of the average Wall Street estimate of $9.2 billion.
Shares of Apple jumped 7.5 percent to above $204 in extended trading. It had closed at $189.86 on Nasdaq. The stock's record intraday high was $202.96 on December 27, 2007.
Prior to the results, some analysts said expectations for Apple might be too high after the stock doubled in value this year, lifting it to about 32 times forward earnings versus RIM's and Nokia's 16. But after Apple's results came on Monday, some saw its stock rising to $250 -- implying an even loftier 35 times forward earnings.
Looking ahead, Apple said demand outstripped supply for much of the quarter in most of the countries where it sells the iPhone 3G S -- its newest model -- before a balance was struck in late September and early October. The company is rolling out the phone to China -- the world's top cellular market -- this quarter.
"We were very surprised by the demand," admitted Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook.
The company also hinted at lower-cost products yet to come. It forecast gross margins falling to 34 percent in the fourth quarter.
"For the new products that we have and will announce, we are delivering greater value to our customers, and these products have lower gross margins than their predecessors," Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said.
Apple posted a gross margin of 36.6 percent, up from 34.7 percent a year ago. Wall Street had been expecting a margin of 35.5 percent.
Stronger margins came from higher-than-anticipated sales of its "Snow Leopard" operating system for Mac computers, and component cost increases that were lower-than-expected.
Apple's outlook is typically conservative, though its revenue forecast this quarter was not far off from Wall Street averages. Apple forecast current-quarter earnings of $1.70 to $1.78 a share on revenue of $11.3 billion to $11.6 billion, versus the Street's $1.91 a share on revenue of $11.4 billion.
"While we knew they were gaining share in those categories -- PCs and phones -- it's still surprising to see this degree of outperformance," said Daniel Ernst, an analyst with Hudson Square Research.
Copyright 2009 Reuters. Click for restrictions.
Copyright 2009 Reuters. Click for restrictions.