Strong December sales for the iPad and iPhone could push Apple's earnings above Wall Street's current expectations of $5.40 earnings per share on sales of $24.43 billion, according to research firm Piper Jaffray.
"iPhone and iPad remain somewhat of a wildcard, albeit positive, and we believe solid holiday demand could drive upside to Street numbers," Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster wrote in a research note Jan. 18, ahead of Apple's first quarter earnings report.
Munster said Wall Street expects Apple to tally 6.2 million iPads sold for the quarter, up 2 million from last quarter. He noted that his store checks showed the iPad outselling the Mac anywhere from 4 to 1 to 10 to 1.
Wall Street also anticipates Apple to report 15.5 million iPhones sold, or nearly double (91 percent) Apple sold for the same quarter last year.
"We believe this 91 percent growth is achievable in the December quarter, as the Street was factoring in U.S. consumers delaying iPhone purchases in anticipation of a Verizon launch," Munster said. "In other words, while the iPhone represents a wildcard in the quarter, we believe 15.5 million units is achievable."
Apple reports earnings tonight after the bell. Expectations that the company could post its strongest quarter in the company's history are somewhat tempered by Apple CEO Steve Jobs' medical leave of absence.
Jobs will continue to act as CEO, though Apple COO Tim Cook will be responsible for the company's day-to-day operations. The news sent Apple shares plummeting 8 percent in afternoon trading from the Jan. 14 close.
"This leads us to believe Jobs expects the leave to be shorter and/or less serious than his previous leave," Munster opined in his note. "Secondly, Jobs did not issue an expected return date as he did in 2009, which adds an element of uncertainty."
What is certain is that most financial analysts, such as Gleacher & Co.'s Brian Marshall, don't believe Apple will miss a beat with Jobs taking some down time.
"Running a $100 billion annual revenue company while being forced to take periodic medical leaves is not fair to anyone (e.g., most of all to Jobs, AAPL investors or its employees/board)," Marshall wrote in a Jan. 18 note.
"Cook has performed flawlessly in the past as AAPL's interim CEO and we expect he will become the full-time CEO of Apple this year with Jobs hopefully serving as a senior adviser... Apple remains the best technology company on the planet with numerous catalysts on the horizon."
Analysts also remain bullish about Apple's March quarter, which will include some numbers about the company's launch of the iPhone 4 on Verizon Wireless' network.
That launch, which captured media attention all of last week, is slated for Feb. 10. Analysts believe the iPhone 4 launch on Verizon could add 9 million to 15 million iPhone sales this year.