Apple Is Approaching a Defining Moment

nyc_14thapplestore1Come Wednesday, it will be Apple’s (s aapl) turn to discuss its results for the first three months of 2009. But among the crowd of Apple watchers, the discussion has been simmering for months, with the tone shifting from pessimism about recession-whacked sales to cautious optimism — especially as the stock has rebounded 58 percent and skeptical analysts have revised previously bearish outlooks.

While Apple is still feeling the weight of the bad economy, it’s also still holding the loyalty of cost-conscious consumers who continue to see value in its products. As encouraging as this last quarter may prove to be for investors, however, the bigger story for Apple is the three months that lay ahead. Not only will they be far more interesting, they could mark a significant turning point for the company and the markets it’s helping to reshape.Apple’s innovations this past quarter were largely incremental — upgraded iMacs, new iPhone software, a smaller iPod shuffle. This quarter, however, it’s expected to roll out initiatives that involve considerably more risk.

The iPhone is sure to see its stiffest competition to date from the soon-to-be-released BlackBerry Niagara (s rimm), the Palm Pre (s palm) and various Android (s goog) devices. Leaks of the features on the next-generation iPhone suggest Apple could maintain an innovative edge over rivals, but any missteps could hurt its market share. The iPhone also faces an uncertain fate as Apple pushes to launch in China as early as June. Talks with China Unicom have dragged on for months, but a successful debut could add to Apple’s revenue growth for years.

Apple’s developer conference in June will offer a platform to unveil the Snow Leopard operating system and offer hints of the company’s strategy for responding to the increasing demand for netbooks. Rumors of a touchscreen device from Apple have been echoing louder recently as well.

All of these efforts are well timed. Not only are they aimed at markets where competition is rising (and in the case of computers, a silly but effective PR campaign by Microsoft), they may be unveiled just as consumer spending reaches a trough. There is precious little room for errors.

Normally, this would be little more than a tricky juggling act for Apple, but hitting all these moving targets in the midst of a major shift in leadership will make it a defining moment for the company. While the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Jobs still regularly reviews products and product plans (a report that was greeted with some skepticism), if and when he takes up the reins at Apple again, he’ll be returning to a company that has made several crucial strategic decisions during his absence.

In the meantime, the longer Apple can continue to execute without Steve Jobs’ day-to-day guidance, the less handwringing there is over how well the company will do under a new leadership. I’ve argued before that Apple will do fine without Jobs. But for the best insight into how successful Apple will be after his eventual departure, the first glimpses will come this quarter.