December 18, 2008 / 4:07 PM / 10 years ago

Less cheer as Apple confronts an uncertain 2009

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - This is usually a good time of year for Apple Inc (AAPL.O), with shoppers crowding its stores and buzz building ahead of the Macworld trade show in January.

But this year, it’s looking far less cheery and 2009 may even be a little glum.

Chief Executive Steve Jobs won’t speak at Macworld In January, which is taken a sign there are no big products in store. Apple sales are being hurt by the lack of a new desktop, according to researcher NPD, and Goldman Sachs expects the company to confront a tougher environment as demand for its high-end products weakens.

In addition, the announcement that Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, will give the Macworld keynote instead of Jobs sent shares down more than 6 percent on Wednesday, as speculation about Jobs’ health resurfaced.

Apple remains an iconic brand, whose marketing, balance sheet and strong growth are the envy of competitors. But with expectations of a major product launch now muted and consumer spending pinched, the outlook is a bit cloudier.

Shaw Wu, an analyst with Kaufman Bros, said Apple is “well-positioned to weather the downturn,” but said he’d like it to explore lower prices to stimulate sales.

Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner, however, is concerned about the future.

“The question isn’t just 2009, it’s what happens after that,” Reiner said. “What are going to be the next set of products that continue to drive the shift from Windows to Apple?”

Jobs’ Macworld keynotes are one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year for technology enthusiasts. Jobs is renowned as a master pitchman and he has used past Macworlds to launch products such as iPhone, which became a huge hit.

“I would say that the fact that Phil is speaking instead of Steve is an indication that they don’t have a big blockbuster product,” said NPD analyst Stephen Baker.

The news about Macworld comes amid a brutal economic downturn. With shoppers nervous, Apple’s sales, like those other consumer technology companies, will probably suffer.

NPD said Apple posted flat year-over-year U.S. sales in November for Macs, even as sales of rival Microsoft Corp’s (MSFT.O) Windows PCs rose 7 percent.

Apple does not provide mid-quarter sales updates.

Although the company’s notebook sales showed continued strength, NPD said desktop sales were weak and some analysts expect Apple to refresh the line sometime in the near future.

Last weekend, Goldman Sachs downgraded Apple, citing lower- than-expected MacBook, iPod nano and iPhone shipments going into the December quarter.

Concern about Apple’s sales often centers around the premium prices it charges for its products. Price matters to consumers these days, as evidenced by the phenomenal rise of so-called netbooks, the small, low-cost laptops that have emerged as one of the hottest technology products of the year.

Apple has been openly dismissive of netbooks, even as rivals Hewlett-Packard Co (HPQ.N) and Dell Inc DELL.O scramble to expand their offerings.

And price is at the root of one the biggest unconfirmed Internet rumors swirling around Apple these days: That Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) will sell a lower-cost version of the iPhone.

THE HEALTH ISSUE

Many analysts said the Macworld announcement was bound to revive concerns, whether valid or not, about the health of the 53-year-old Jobs, who is a pancreatic cancer survivor.

The company did not directly respond to questions about his health.

Reiner said Apple has not given the public any details about a succession plans.

“Until we have more clarity, it’s hard to recommend the stock,” Reiner added.

Wu said that to the best of his knowledge, Jobs health is fine. He said the company does have a succession plan, it’s just not sharing it.

“The concern is overdone. Apple has a very deep bench. It’s not just about Steve Jobs. It’s about the ensemble cast.”

The shares of Cupertino, California-based Apple fell $6.27 to close at $89.16 on Wednesday.

Editing by Andre Grenon

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