STOCK WATCH


Apple Computer: Bruised

Bob Frick

The computer company's stock has had taken some hits, but there's some promising fruit on the tree.



It was a bad week for Apple Computer. On Thursday, Apple acknowledged that it was among at least 56 other companies that may have mishandled stock options awarded to employees. On Friday, French lawmakers approved legislation that could force Apple to make its iPod music player and iTunes online store compatible with rivals' offerings (Apple called an earlier version of the bill "state-sponsored piracy").

These latest bruises pushed Apple's stock (symbol AAPL) down 2.9% on Friday, to $57. That is far below the stock's record high of $86.40, set last January. Is there something rotten with this Apple?

Hardly, says Needham analyst Charlie Wolf. To start, last fall's Wall Street feeding frenzy, based mainly on the popularity of the iPod, pushed the stock price far above what it deserved. When sales of the iPod stopped their mercurial rise after the 2005 holiday season, the stock started to sink. Further, says Wolf, the transition to Intel processors in Apple computers caused a number of potential Apple computer purchasers to delay buying until they could get an Apple with Intel inside.

Wolf thinks a big defection of PC users to the Apple camp could send Apple stock back to $90 in the next year. It's not the clever Apple commercials that slam PCs as stodgy, crash-prone and slow that will do the trick. Rather, Apple is removing the biggest hurdle to making the switch: Previously, you couldn't run Windows-only programs on Apples. Now, you can.

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Wolf thinks this advantage won't really kick in until 2007, when Apple introduces the next version of its operating system. That version will make Windows-on-Apple work much more smoothly. This mass migration of PC users to Apple "won't become a reality until Apple really pushes it," says Wolf. But when it does, look out.




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