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NEVER before has so much money been made by a single firm in such a short period of time. On January 27th Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, announced that it had made $18 billion in its latest fiscal quarter, which ran almost to the end of December 2014. That beats the previous record of $15.9 billion reported by ExxonMobil, an oil company, in 2012, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Apple’s telephone-number-sized profit stemmed largely from sales of its hugely popular iPhone, which accounted for over two-thirds of its $74.6 billion revenue. Chief executives rarely admit to being dumbfounded by their companies’ performance, but Mr Cook said it was “hard to comprehend” the extent of the interest in Apple’s products. He noted that, on average, 34,000 iPhones were bought every hour of every day during the latest quarter. That added up to 74.5m phones, way more than market-watchers had expected.

20150131_WBD001_0Apple is the world’s largest company by market capitalisation as well as its most profitable. Strikingly, it has risen to greatness using a rather old-fashioned business model: selling highly desirable objects at fat gross margins, which hit almost 40% in the latest quarter. The tech industry has spawned numerous software-based firms, such as Google and Facebook, that don’t have to worry about shifting goods around, yet they make much less than the Colossus of Cupertino. Amazon handles lots of physical goods, but loses money.

Another thing that sets Apple apart from the tech pack is its success in conquering China. While rivals have been frustrated there, Apple has just become the largest force in China’s smartphone market measured by units shipped, according to Canalys, a market-research firm. Apple’s revenue from the Greater China region, which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong, soared 70%, to just over $16 billion.

Any setback in China could hurt Apple. The company’s overall dependence on the iPhone is another risk. But these are early days for the iPhone 6, Apple’s latest device, whose bigger screen takes the firm into the “phablet” category of larger phones that are wildly popular with customers. Some iBulls also point out that Apple’s share of the smartphone market is small compared with devices using Google’s Android operating system (see chart). So it has plenty of room to grow.

20150131_WBC868If it is still to reduce its dependence on iPhones, Apple will need new money-spinning gizmos. Mr Cook said this week that its much-ballyhooed smartwatch will go on sale in April. Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a consulting firm, thinks Apple could sell 22m-24m in the first 12 months after the launch, producing billions of dollars of new revenue. Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, reckons the watches will have a higher-than-average gross margin, which bodes well for profits.

Apple should be able to make more money from software and services, too. The firm’s online store of software apps had its busiest-ever day on January 1st and the introduction of a smart watch will lead to another app feeding frenzy. Apple profits by taking a chunk of the money developers make from app sales and in-app purchases. By binding customers into its “ecosystem” of hardware and software plus services such as Apple Pay, a contactless-payment system, the firm also makes it more likely they will stay with it when they upgrade their gadgets.

This still leaves the company with a headache other firms would die to have: its Croesus-like mountain of cash, which now stands at $178 billion—a figure that is greater than the market capitalisations of information-technology giants such as Intel and IBM. Apple, which has already spent billions of dollars on share buy-backs, will revisit its plans to return money to shareholders and discuss them in April. Mr Cook can expect plenty of calls from activist investors before then, no doubt from their shiny new iPhones.

The Economist: from the printed edition Business

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