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Great Quarter, but What's Next for Apple?

The latest earnings from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) put a smile on many an analyst's and investor's face, with 24% revenue growth year over year and a 47% earnings increase. The decision to power MacBooks and iMacs with Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) chips is paying off, and the iPod/iTunes phenomenon is still going strong as well.

Apple is a hard company to pin down, but take your pick from the markets in which it participates: Computer hardware traffickers such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) or Gateway (NYSE: GTW  ) would kill for Apple's 30% gross and 10% net margins, not to mention 24% year-over-year revenue growth; and in the digital music industry, Creative (Nasdaq: CREAF  ) and Napster (Nasdaq: NAPS  ) would do the same for just a little slice of Apple's dominant customer base.

But Apple does have a weakness, and the earnings conference call highlighted this in an offhand way, many times over. It's a communication problem, and it seems to mask the real opportunity -- or lack thereof.

Coming up with great new products is the only way to stay ahead in the computer hardware market. The latest and greatest today won't necessarily cut it next year, so a constant flow of creativity is of paramount importance. When Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer says he doesn't imagine that the creativity at Apple can ever be lost, I get flashbacks of overconfident statements like "640K ought to be enough for anybody" (Bill Gates of Microsoft, 1981) or "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" (Thomas Watson of IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , 1943).

Once Steve Jobs hands over the reins to the next generation, the question is whether there is a long-term vision anymore, or any sustainable support system for today's business within the company -- not to mention tomorrow's business. The reluctance to share any details about the company's inner workings is often put down to Jobs' talent for riding expectations and building suspense, but the fact of the matter is that I have no idea whatsoever what Apple wants to do in the long run.

The conference call was full of "we don't share those details," and "we don't break out numbers that way," and that's fine in most cases, but I'd be plenty more comfortable with both the short-term and the long-term prospects of this company if it would just tell us something. Just once in a while. As it is, the next quarter will probably be fine thanks to Intel's impressive Core 2 Duo shipping inside Macs soon, but after that, I have no idea. There has been no real iPod news since the 1GB Nano in February, and the music players power a full third of Apple's sales. So when do we get to hear what's next, Steve?

Further Foolish reading:

You'll find Intel and Microsoft recommended in Inside Value and Dell recommended in both Inside Value and Stock Advisor. A free trial will show you why investors like you and our advisers like these stocks.

Fool contributorAnders Bylunddoesn't hold any position in any of the companies mentioned here. There's a market for maybe five computers in his house. Foolishdisclosureis much more forthcoming than Apple. For example, you can check outAnders' holdings for yourself.

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