Apple's Earnings Still Aren't Good, But Its Swagger Is Making A Comeback

Apple's numbers are in, and the big one doesn't look good. For the second consecutive quarter profits are down. So are iPad sales. Yes, iPhone sales were up and Mac sales bested their modest estimates, but on the whole, the company's performance was sort of lackluster. So what's going on?

Considering the company's unprecedented success, comparing Apple to Apple is a tricky business. And to be honest, Apple hasn't really seemed like itself lately, what with its deflated stock, executive shakeups and product snafus (Maps, anyone?).

But in sharp contrast to his deflated performance at this time last quarter, today CEO Tim Cook channeled his predecessor's winning formula: Unyielding confidence, total secrecy, and an obsessively product-minded approach. It's possible that Apple's long game just got interesting again. 

Cook's Got Cards Up His Sleeve

Three months ago, Cook reluctantly reported—proverbial tail between his legs—that his company's profits had fallen for the first time in ten years. Yikes. The call was about as upbeat as a funeral with a Q&A tacked on the end. But the call today struck a very different tone from that earlier Great Apple Humbling Of 2013. Instead of scrambling for answers, Cook was cool and confident—even evincing a touch of the classic Steve Jobs hubris on occasion.

Cook answered nearly every question with an allusion to Apple products in the pipeline instead of reframing lagging stats in a positive light (i.e., making excuses). And he sounded like he might be checking his watch so he could get back to the whole making-the-iFuture part. "We're here to make great products," Cook said. "We think that if we focus on that and do it really, really well, then the financial metrics will also come." Fair enough.

And the "one more thing" thing? That vibe was back too. In the earnings report, Cook claimed that Apple is "laser-focused and working hard on some amazing new products that we will introduce in the fall and across 2014." In the call, he sounded it.

Apple's September Surprise (Hint: It's An iPhone)

Sure, the explosive growth that we've come to expect from one of the world's most valuable companies has stalled. But Apple is in a unique position: measured only against its own astronomical success to date, it's really hard to look good. While there's been no flashy new mobile gadget to buoy its stock prices or keep consumers in its thrall, 2013 won't be a wash for the tech titan.

According to Cook, Apple is "on track to have a very busy fall." Translation: a new iPhone that will sell like hotcakes. More exciting—though perhaps less "sexy"—is the first total overhaul of Apple's iconic mobile operating system, which hasn't seen a dramatic redesign since its 2007 launch. With iOS founder Scott Forstall out as of late last year and design rockstar Jony Ive at the wheel, iOS 7 will be the most risky and exciting iPhone shakeup to date—and that goes for hardware too. Fingers crossed for a one more iThing. 

Apple's Next Next Moves

How do you sell iPhones when everyone already owns an iPhone? How do you follow up a game-changer like the iPad without just iterating indefinitely? Well, you either create a new product category altogether or you fix what's broken in other ones. Looking to Apple's record, if you can't be first, be best.

For as many game-changing products that Apple has released over the years, it's refined many more. The notebook computer, the MP3 player, the smartphone—all were honed to near-perfection by tight-lipped Cupertino tinkerers. Apple's next trick? The iWatch rumors could very well pan out in 2014, or even this fall.

But if Cook's final comment of the call is any indication, Apple might have bigger plans for the connected car market than the iOS 7 liner notes have made plain. "Having something in the automobile is very, very important," Cook said. "I think that Apple can do this better than anyone else." That was literally the ending note.

Connected car tech remains a manufacturer-made nightmare of buggy proprietary software and prohibitive pricing. In other words, it's the exact kind of rough-around-the-edges market that Cook and co. could be the antidote for. Mysteries remain. How integrated will this "iOS in the car" system be? Is it just a glorified dashboard mount, or does Apple have some serious stuff cooking with major automakers? Today, it sounded like the latter.  

Apple's numbers may be in a holding pattern, but Apple is starting to sound like itself again. For a company with a fiercely product-centric philosophy, that can only mean one thing: Apple's got some cool stuff in the pipeline and we probably can't even imagine what some of it will be.

Just like old times.