Apple last night reported sales and profits that beat Wall Street expectations, with chief executive Tim Cook saying China sales were "headed in the right direction" as that country reopens from the coronavirus. 

But Mr Cook said it was impossible to forecast overall results for the current quarter because of uncertainty created by the virus. 

With its global brand, few US companies have been exposed to the spread of the coronavirus like Apple, whose iPhone sales declined in the March quarter as device sales were forced to online-only in many places. 

But sales of subscription services such as streaming television content rose with billions of people locked in their homes, pushed the overall number of subscribers to paid apps and services on Apple's devices to 515 million. 

China, where the virus was first detected, is both a major market for Apple, supplying about a sixth of its overall sales, and is also home to most of Apple's contract factories. 

Apple saw China sales of $9.46 billion, down less than a $1 billion from a year ago, a potential sign of how the company will fare as other markets emerge from lockdowns. 

Apple slowly reopened Chinese stores, with all running again by mid-March. 

"As compared to February, we saw a nice improvement in March and a further improvement in April. China is headed in the right direction," Mr Cook told Reuters in an interview. 

Apple reported overall sales of $58.3 billion and earnings of $2.55 per share for its fiscal second quarter ended in March.

This marked an increase from the year ago results of $58 billion and $2.46, and above analyst estimates of $54.5 billion and $2.27, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. 

Mr Cook said the first five weeks of the fiscal second quarter, "it was an incredible time where we were growing very fast and we were set to essentially come in at the high end of our guidance" of between $63 billion and $67 billion in sales. 

But the quarter changed quickly, and Apple broke with its usual practice of providing an estimated range of sales for the current quarter. 

"Rather than pretend we can project it, we're being very straightforward and saying we lack the visibility to do it," Mr Cook said. 

Apple stores outside mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea remained closed. 

In an interview with Bloomberg Television, Mr Cook said that Apple plans to reopen retail stores in Austria and Australia in one to two weeks and a small number of stores in the US in the first half of May. 

Lockdowns forced Apple to release its newest iPhone SE 2 mostly via online sales. Cook said that he was pleased with early sales of the new device, along with new Macs and iPads released during the fiscal second quarter. 

"As compared to the last part of March and the beginning of April, we've seen a better second half of April," Mr Cook told Reuters. 

The Apple CEO declined to comment on whether Apple faces supply chain disruptions for devices that will be released later this year. He said Apple's supply chain was "back up and running at full-throttle at the end of March." 

Apple also said it would buy back another $50 billion of its own stock, a smaller figure than in past updates to its capital return programme, but they are expected to use those funds aggressively. 

Apple said iPhone sales were $29 billion, down from $30.9 billion the year before compared with analyst estimates of $28.4 billion, to data from FactSet. 

Sales for Apple's services segment, which includes iCloud storage as well as its streaming services for music and television shows, were $13.4 billion, compared with analyst estimates of $12.9 billion, according to FactSet data. 

Mr Cook said Apple had 515 million subscribers to apps and services on Apple's platform, up by 125 million from one year earlier. He said during a conference call with analysts that Apple News reached 125 million monthly active users, up from 100 million in January. 

Apple's wearables and accessories segment, which includes Apple's AirPods and Apple Watch, were $6.3 billion, compared with analyst estimates of $6.7 billion, according to FactSet data.