Last week, in 3 Stocks to Sell If They Crash on Earnings, I urged caution ahead of Apple's report, in part because of the iPhone transition, however, I added:
But strong sales of reiterations of existing product lines only tell part of the story. If iTV does not knock the public's socks off, it will plant the seed that Apple's future might not be so bright. And at day's end, isn't that the reason why AAPL has stagnated? There are concerns about the company's ability to out-innovate going forward.

Simply put, AAPL bulls, for months, have underestimated the loss of Steve Jobs. I know they're sick of hearing that, but it's the elephant in the room. It has been for some time. That became apparent when Tim Cook caved on the dividend and rumors began to swirl that Apple might, against Jobs's better judgment, release a mini version of iPad.

Consider the trend here. Don't discount it. Don't ignore it. While still superior to the competition, the gap between Apple and everybody else continues to close in the Tim Cook era.

Cook Isn't Jobs

Under Steve Jobs, Apple did not play by the rules that govern everybody else. It should scare AAPL bulls that, all of a sudden, China -- which, just three months ago, was supposed to be the clear difference maker according to so many -- contributed to a weak Q3 and expectations of a soft Q4. Are the Chinese sitting back and just waiting for iPhone 5? Please.

Macro pressures that Apple once skirted now hurt them enough to produce an earnings miss of epic proportion. And let's be clear, these macro (and company-specific) issues are real; it's just that, for quite some time now, Apple has been above it all.

As a few analysts said after yesterday's report, "Apple is no longer immune" to macro headwinds.

For the record, I have never and would never argue that Apple the company will die. Instead, Cook will lead them from greatness to something else. That something else could very well be better than what the competition puts forth.

With the exception of Microsoft's ( MSFT) forthcoming Windows 8-related offerings, there's not much out there in the way of formidable competition. And, for Microsoft to perform better than slightly above average, Steve Ballmer needs to keep his foot out of his mouth and his head down. His history proves that that's a tall order.

But the uncertainty that surrounds Apple competition -- or lack thereof -- will not save AAPL from falling. It's key to separate the company from the stock here. Apple, the company, set a bar for its stock that could very well have been too high.

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