Jan 28, 2014 · 4 minutes

“Are you still a growth company?”

The question was thrown at Tim Cook during a conference call Monday to discuss Apple's earnings last quarter. The headline numbers – revenue: $57.6 billion, net income: $14.50 a share – came in ahead of analyst estimates. But the tone of many analysts asking questions didn't signal much pleasure, but rather a growing sense of impatience with the company.

As Cook fielded questions, Apple's stock was tumbling toward $502 a share, a 9-percent drop from its official closing price of $550.50 Monday. After the call, Apple's stock recovered a bit, but not much. It was still down 8 percent from the close. Other numbers were stealing the limelight, like the 51 million iPhones Apple sold last quarter, which fell shy of the 55 million analysts were expecting.

The company's forecast for total revenue this quarter, between $42 billion and $44 billion, also came up short. Analysts were hoping for a number near $46 billion. In fact, Apple revenue guidance for this quarter is pretty much flat with, and possibly below, the $43.6 billion in revenue that Apple reported in the March quarter of 2013.

In other words, the iPhone, Apple's flagship product, sold less than many people were expecting last quarter, despite an important upgrade right before the holidays. And here the CFO was signaling to investors not to get their hopes up to high this quarter.

So the question about growth, asked by Barclays' Ben Reitzes, was warranted, even if its direct delivery broached the bland etiquette of these conference calls, where analysts traditionally express frustration with a CEO by asking tough questions in an indirect, even rambling manner. It was like asking a dinner host if they were going to cook something decent next time. Basically, it was like asking Apple's CEO if Apple was ever going to be Apple again.

Cook answered the question gamely, if blandly. In addition to channel inventory, foreign exchange rates and revenue deferral, Cook said, remember that iPod sales are declining quickly. Last quarter, Apple's total revenue rose 6 percent, but iPod sales fell 52 percent. Factor out declining iPod sales and revenue grew by double digits last quarter.

And there you have the growing disconnect between Tim Cook's Apple and the company that investors expect it to be. Apple also sold more iPads and Macs than Wall Street expected. It sold a record number of iPhones and iPads and saw record iTunes revenue. It finally got a foothold in China and said sales rose 40 percent in Japan, 76 percent in Latin America, and 115 percent in Eastern Europe. It beat earnings handily, as it has done 93 percent of the time in the past decade. But this time the stock tanked in the aftermarket, erasing three months of gains in less than two hours.

Apple's tireless defenders have argued that the company is no less innovative than before, that the incremental innovations in its wares are over time as compelling as the bold launches of category-defining products. Beyond that, Apple's growth is being constrained by factors it can't control. Supply constraints kept it from meeting strong demand for iPads and iPhone 5S. Carriers in North America made their upgrade policies less friendly for subscribers, a key reason for the contraction in iPhone sales on North America.

All those mitigating factors might make perfect sense to Apple's defenders, but they're not playing well in the markets. As a result, Apple has paid out $43 billion in cash to investors since the summer of 2012, and yet its stock is trading not far from where it was back then.

What investors are focusing on is that the single-digit top-line growth is a far cry from 2011, when revenue was growing closer to 80 percent. They look past the rise in earnings per share to $14.50 from $13.81 a year ago to see that net income itself was basically flat at $13 billion. EPS rose not because profits surged, but because Apple retired 46 million shares through repurchases last year.

Most of all, they've listened to Cook talk about entering new product categories without seeing any evidence that any are forthcoming. Cook again hinted that that products in new categories would be coming this year but as usual offered no details.

At the end of the call – getting in the last word with analysts impatient for something, anything bullish to hang a hat on – Cook said, “We have zero issue coming up with things we want to do that we think we can disrupt in a major way. The challenge is always to focus to the very few that deserve all of our energy. And we’ve always done that, and we’re continuing to do that.”

And that will have to do for several more months. Apple will continue to make its excellent products even better, and will push them into emerging markets. But it's been a couple of years now while Cook has promised bold new products in new markets, and unless something big is forthcoming this year, Apple's issues with investors – and not just Carl Icahn – is likely to fester into a big problem.

[Image via Thinkstock]