Those looking for a clear indication of Apple's future direction didn't get it Tuesday when the company reported its fiscal third-quarter earnings.

On the positive side, the company's profit grew 12 percent from the same period a year earlier, thanks to better-than-expected cost controls, surpassing expectations. The iPhone maker posted strong computer and iPhone sales.

On the flip side, its sales grew by less than 6 percent, falling shy of Wall Street's estimates, and its forecast for its current fourth fiscal quarter was disappointing. And the iPad, which not long ago was Apple's hottest product, continued its recent sales decline.

Investors and analysts shouldn't make too much of the results one way or the other, said Scott Rothbort, president of investment firm LakeView Asset Management. Apple didn't have much in the way of new products and the period didn't include one of its more important selling seasons, such as the Christmas holidays or the back-to-school period.

"This quarter really was a quarter without any story behind it, and they did OK," said Rothbort, who owns Apple stock and manages client accounts with Apple shares.

On the whole, investors seemed to agree, reacting little to the report. In after-hours trading, Apple's stock fell 57 cents, or about 0.6 percent, to $94.15.


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In its third fiscal quarter, which ended June 28, Apple earned $7.75 billion, or $1.28 a share. That was up from $6.9 billion, or $1.06 a share, in the same period last year. The company's sales rose to $37.4 billion from $35.3 billion in the year-ago quarter.

On average, analysts polled by Thomson Reuters predicted Apple would post earnings of $1.23 a share on about $38 billion in sales.

Apple's profit growth outpaced its sales growth thanks to lower-than-expected costs. The company's gross margin, which is the portion of its revenue left after accounting for the direct costs of producing and distributing its products, was 39.3 percent, up from 36.9 percent in its third quarter last year.

"The teams executed really, really well," Luca Maestri, Apple's chief financial officer, said on a conference call with analysts. He added that a lot of "things came together at the same time. It was a very nice surprise for us."

Apple's results also benefited from strong sales of Mac computers. It sold 4.4 million Macs, up about 18 percent from its third quarter last year. Mac sales brought in $5.5 billion in revenue, up 13 percent from the same period last year.

But iPad sales fell 8 percent from the same period last year, marking the fourth sales decline in the past five quarters.

Apple doesn't provide specific earnings guidance, but said it expects fiscal fourth-quarter sales of $37 billion to $40 billion. Its expense forecast for the quarter implies that Apple expects to earn $6.7 billion to $7.9 billion for the period. That works out to $1.11 to $1.31 a share, assuming the company's share count remains about the same as it was in its third quarter.

Before the report, analysts had predicted Apple would earn $1.34 a share on $40.4 billion in sales.

Apple's shares have risen 25 percent over the past three months amid expectations that the company will release a slew of new products, including a bigger screened iPhone, this fall.

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.