Even after a recent rebound off their lows, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) shares still trade for about 35% below their all-time high of $705. Could they once again soar to such lofty levels? It's certainly possible, but before that happens, Apple's shares must first cross back above the $500 level. Here are five events that could help that happen in the days and months ahead.
A deal with China Mobile
In the third quarter, Apple's revenues in its Greater China business fell more than 40% compared with the previous quarter and were down 14% year over year. Weaker economic growth in China and other macroeconomic factors were partly to blame, but Apple must take steps to restore growth in this vital market nonetheless. Apple plans to double the number of retail stores in China over the next two years in an attempt to boost its distribution and to create more brand awareness. But there's another action Apple can take that would probably have an even more significant impact: reaching a deal with China Mobile (NYSE:CHL) to bring the iPhone to its massive network of more than 700 million mobile subscribers. You read that number correctly -- that's more than twice the number of people that live in the United States. And while a great many of China Mobile's customers would be unable to afford the current versions of the iPhone, those who can afford the device can move the needle significantly in terms of Apple's sales in the region and on an overall revenue basis.
A mid-priced iPhone
Another thing that will help Apple's emerging-market sales is a new, less-expensive version of the iPhone. In many areas of the world, incomes are far lower than in the U.S., and cheaper smartphones powered by Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android operating system -- along with even cheaper feature phones that are "smart enough" -- are gobbling up market share at the expense of higher-end smartphones. Apple has been getting more aggressive and has met with some success offering older versions of the iPhone -- currently the iPhone 4 -- at a substantial discount to the iPhone 5. This discounting strategy has also served Apple well here in the U.S. by appealing to more price-sensitive consumers and bringing them into Apple's typically sticky ecosystem. But a new mid-priced iPhone would probably drive even higher sales in international markets, because consumers tend to like new devices better than discounted older versions, and Apple can better target the needs of these developing-market consumers with a product specifically designed for them.
A dividend boost
Much has been made about Apple's massive share-buyback program, and for good reason. Apple has already spent billions buying back huge chunks of its shares, which reduced Apple's shares outstanding by more than 30 million shares in the third quarter alone. This, in turn, will boost Apple's earnings per share and probably its share price, as many investors tend to focus on metrics such price-to-earnings multiples. But Apple's massive cash hoard still checks in at more than $140 billion, and with free cash flow of more than $40 billion over the past 12 months, Apple can easily afford to boost its dividend by 20% or more. Such a move would probably entice income-seeking investors and create excitement around Apple's stock once again.
A successful iOS 7 release
Many critics have argued that Apple's iOS operating system design has become stale and boring, and -- even worse -- has been surpassed by Google's Android OS in several important aspects. iOS 7 can change all of that. Lead designer Jony Ive has completely revamped the appearance of Apple's mobile operating system with a fresh, more modern look and impressive new features that are making the upcoming release of iOS 7 one of the most anticipated in recent memory. Should iOS 7 delight users, it could go a long way toward showing that innovation is alive and well at Apple.
The Apple TV we've been waiting for
Some may scoff at my assertion that a redesigned operating system is enough to appease those who believe Apple's innovation magic died when Steve Jobs passed away. In fact, I agree; Apple needs to do more. And probably the best way to prove to critics and investors alike that Apple is still capable of creating game-changing new products is ... to create a game-changing new product. And the most game-changing of them all would be the long-rumored and almost mythical Apple TV. I'm not referring to the Apple TV currently on the market. I'm speaking about the one we've been waiting for that's supposed to completely disrupt the cable television industry. Rumors have been swirling that Apple is attempting to reach deals with content providers that will allow it to offer a premium TV experience that would free viewers from ads and commercials. While the details are still unknown, such a creation would probably meet with strong demand and drive excitement for Apple's ecosystem of products and services, thereby strengthening the Apple halo effect and restoring the shine on Apple's brand.
The Foolish bottom line
Out of the five items I've listed in this article that could drive Apple's share price back above $500, the new Apple TV may be the one for which we wait the longest. But it can't come soon enough; Google's new Chromecast Internet TV device has been meeting with rave reviews, and Apple cannot allow Google to capture a beachhead in the all-important battle for the living room. But that's just one area of a multi-front war currently being waged by the tech titans. For Apple's stock to soar, Apple will have to win in several key areas. And along the way, there will multiple major developments that could crush Apple. In The Motley Fool's special free report titled "5 Secrets to Apple's Future," we outline the key factors every Apple investor needs to watch. Just click here now for your free report.
Joe Tenebruso manages a Real-Money Portfolio for The Motley Fool and is an analyst on the Fool's Stock Advisor and Supernova premium service teams. You can connect with him on Twitter: @Tier1Investor. Joe has no position in any stocks mentioned.
The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google and owns shares of Apple, China Mobile, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.