Google, Apple, and Microsoft all report earnings next week -- here's what we hope to learn

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Three giants of tech -- Google, Apple, and Microsoft -- will release earnings reports for the fourth quarter of 2012 next week. That's a particularly important quarter because it contains the holiday season, when the bulk of consumer sales happen.

As consumers buy products from these companies, they will begin to find their way into enterprises. So there's lots of interesting information that could come out of next week's calls. 

Google goes first, on Tuesday, January 22. Here's what we're most curious about:

  • Are Chromebooks selling? The newest Chromebooks were unveiled in October, following what's thought to be very slow sales of the previous versions. But there are some signs that Chromebooks may be picking up steam, especially when compared to higher-priced Windows 8 machines. Google isn't likely to reveal actual unit figures but it may shed some light on customer enthusiasm.
  • How serious is Google about its enterprise business? In December, Google eliminated the free version of its Google Apps for business. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the vast majority of Apps for business users are on the free version. Those customers could start paying, leading to a revenue boost for Google, or drop off. Google's decision to get rid of the free version comes just as Microsoft is about to launch Office 2013, with its new subscription model, giving those free Google Apps users a new option. Google doesn't typically reveal Apps revenue details but if we're lucky it will offer some insight into how many of its customers are actually paying (businesses using the free version are grandfathered in). That could give a hint as to whether Google is getting more serious about its enterprise business, or whether it still ranks behind ad-supported businesses, Android, and other initiatives.

Apple comes next on Wednesday. Here's what we want to know:

  • What were iPhone 5 sales like? There have been a flurry of reports that Apple dramatically cut orders for iPhone 5 screens, pointing to low demand. If sales were lower than the market expects or significantly lower than after previous launches, it may indicate that the shine is off the iPhone. If that's the case, enterprises might have to start planning for more Android adoption in 2013.
  • Could we see a cheaper iPhone? If indeed sales of iPhone 5 weren't the best, Apple could hint at making a low-cost smartphone. That could pave the way for the iPhone to become the corporate standard smartphone at more companies who aren't yet embracing BYOD.
  • Did the iPad mini extend the iPad's dominance? IPad mini sales were surely strong but it's uncertain if its success is at the expense of the larger iPad. Some analysts are expecting an expanding range of tablet sizes – merging into the phablet range – this year, primarily from the Android camp. But if the iPad and iPad mini both sold like gangbusters, enterprises won't have to worry about these tablets for a while yet -- the iPad will probably remain the tablet in the enterprise, as it is today.

Microsoft reports on Thursday. Here's what we'll be listening for:

  • Is Surface selling? Microsoft is unlikely to offer definitive numbers about units shipped or sold but it might give some indication about how the tablets are doing. Onlookers seem to think they aren't selling well, with UBS analyst Brent Thill recently cutting in half his estimate for how many sold in the fourth quarter to 1 million.
  • How is the overall PC market doing? Gartner research suggests that PC sales were down about 5% from last year's holiday season. If that's true, it would seem to indicate lackluster interest in Windows 8, or at least in the form factors that PC vendors have been pushing so far. In the past, Microsoft has sometimes given guidance as to why PC sales are low -- for instance, a decline in interest in netbooks, or competition from tablets. These kinds of statements, in conjunction with Apple's reports about the iPad, could give a good indication whether Windows 8 is going to stem the iPad tablet invasion in the enterprise
  • Is Windows Phone finally becoming a player? Again, we're unlikely to find out exact numbers but Microsoft might drop a tidbit or two. Nokia recently had an unexpectedly good earnings report with solid Windows Phone 8 sales so Microsoft might have some positive news to report. If so, enterprises might have to start considering the day when they have to support a third mobile platform alongside iOS and Android.

How these three tech giants did in the holiday quarter will offer some good insight into tech trends in the enterprise, as people and businesses continue to take their cues from consumer technologies. 

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