Apple will announce smartphone and tablet sales today that almost any other company (bar Samsung) would be proud of. But, since Apple has built itself and its image up to such heights, they are almost inevitably going to be viewed as a failure by the market. 

Tough at the Top

With only Samsung breathing the same rarefied atmosphere as Apple sales, the likes of Nokia, BlackBerry and Microsoft can only look on with their middling-to-poor smartphone and tablet numbers. For example, Nokia sold 5.6 million Lumias, analysts expect Apple to sell 36 million iPhones. However, just being the best seller isn't enough for the stock market, which needs to see the next big thing and a clear growth line. 

Apple has failed to show any such thing, keeping its mouth and its press office firmly closed for months on end. That and reports from Asian suppliers, that can be perceived as signs of sales weakness, have brought the stock price down from its $700 high to a mere $400. That's still up double from 2010's value, so long-term investors aren't exactly crying in their bowl at the soup line.

Perhaps Apple is having troubles, maybe the move to new chips, design processes, and battery and screen technologies are seeing delays (it wouldn't be the first time). But, getting out from under its major technology and hardware partner Samsung's wing seems to be a priority and one that Apple seems happy to pay with dents in the stock price. We should get some answers today (5PM EST) when Apple announces its latest numbers. 

Also a factor, now Apple is massively rich, and the partners that it could sign-up for cents for media and content deals in those early years will now be playing very hardball to squeeze Apple back for more than just loose change. All these behind the scenes dealings could be delaying new products and services like iRadio, the Apple TV project and others.

Big Numbers, Small Meanings

While the numbers are likely to still pretty massive, the market reaction will suggest whether the bubble Apple has ridden with the iPhone and then the iPad since 2010 is over. Lack of device variety (something you could never accuse Samsung of), lack of user interface evolution (iOS 6.0 is six months old, and looked out of date at launch) could all be seeing users turn to other platforms (and if that's what the market believes, then the stock will tumble further).  

The critical numbers to look out for are the average revenue per device, with a lower figure showing people are buying lots more iPad mini and older iPhone devices over the latest (and most profitable) models. While Apple, again, won't mind cannibalizing its own sales, and getting on-board millions of emerging market  buyers, the stock market likes it when Apple sells millions of big, shiny, new and expensive devices. 

The price to earnings ratio will also be of keen interest to market watchers, with Apple's earnings likely to be going down, those magic numbers that propelled it such stock dominance will only come tumbling down further. 

On the plus side, the major market movers have likely built in a lot of the potential pad news into today's stock price ahead of the news. While good results from Apple could see the stock rebound, anything less than stellar numbers (which seems most likely) will leave analysts wondering just how much lower they can go before Apple does announce the next-generation products that really could send the stock back up. 

While unlikely, and going against tradition, Apple might just drop some future product news into today's earnings call to generate some stories the focus on something other than the numbers, but with most reporters and analysts lined up with canes and clubs, expect today's news to look really ugly.