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Apple: Looking for a few good converts

The company has adapted a survey for the Web, giving potential Windows switchers a chance to ask questions and quell their doubts before making the leap to the Mac.

Apple Computer is looking for defectors.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker has adapted an exit survey conducted at its 28 retail stores for the Web, giving potential Windows switchers a greater opportunity to ask questions and lay their doubts to rest before making the leap to the Mac. Apple also hopes to gain valuable marketing information it can put toward luring people away from Microsoft's omnipresent operating system.

"If you're a PC user who's eyeing a Mac, we'd love to know what you're thinking," the Web survey reads. "What sparked your interest and made you think about getting a Mac? Do you have questions or issues you need to resolve before you decide? If so, what would help you make up your mind to go for it?"

Apple also wants to hear from those who have already taken the plunge.

"We're Mac people, so we don't know what it feels like to go from using a PC to using a Mac," the survey says. "What's the best thing about using a Mac? Was it hard or easy to make the transition, and was there anything so new and different that it took some getting used to?"

Apple estimates that about 40 percent of people purchasing computers at its retail stores are buying Macs for the first time, said Brian Croll, Apple's senior director of software product marketing.

"We're using the Web to get feedback from our customers and potential customers," Croll said. "It's a straightforward attempt to understand the customer base more deeply and, over time, come to build a better product."

Apple sees its 28 retail stores as a vital barometer for gauging what customers expect of Macs and for following ongoing trends. Salespeople, for example, poll buyers about whether they use Macs or PCs.

"What the stores allow us to do is keep the pulse on the consumer very, very closely," Croll said. "It's a real strategic advantage for us, that we have this real tight relationship with the consumer. It allows us to spot interesting trends and tell what's really going on with the consumer very rapidly."

One trend Apple sees is increased interest around Mac OS X, the new iMac and the digital lifestyle messaging. But the company wants to understand more clearly what aspects matter most to Mac buyers.

"We're seeing new faces," Croll said. "We like to see those new faces, and we want to say welcome to all those new people. We're doing the research to make sure we understand the best way...to talk to them."

Windows users are certainly among those new faces, as are those using Unix, Croll said.

Mac OS X, which Apple released one year ago last week, is built on Unix.

"With the maturation of OS X, we're seeing our ability to reach out to whole new sets of users and show them things about Mac (that have) increased the last couple of months," Croll said. "So it makes sense to reach out to potential Mac owners."

John Herber, an information services manager from Minneapolis, Minn., agreed. "I think it's great that they are doing more market research with Wintel users; it will allow Apple to see what myths and issues they need to address in their ad campaigns."

But some say the effort may not lead to the gains in sales or market share Apple is hoping for.

"Apple faces an uphill battle in drawing PC users away from the Wintel (Windows-Intel) platform," said Kent Pribbernow, a PC user from Fort Wayne, Ind. "I admire the ingenuity and innovative concepts that go into Apple's products. There are no comparable PCs on the market today that can match the style or 'cool' factor of Apple products. Even the company itself has a corporate culture and branding that emits elegance from every seam."

But Pribbernow, who recently ordered a flat-panel iMac, said the cool factor may not be "enough to steer consumers away from cheaper, less aesthetically appealing hardware from the likes of Dell...The fact is we live in a Windows world, and many myths about Mac shortcomings are taken for truth among inexperienced consumers."

The power of myth
Apple has been working to dispel some of those myths in marketing material for its Mac OS X operating system and the flat-panel iMac unveiled in early January. For example, the company addresses questions about whether Macs can work with PCs and whether enough software is available for Apple's OS. The company also has embarked on a broader campaign to woo Windows users to the Mac, pointing to the Mac's potential as a "digital hub" for PCs, digital cameras, MP3 players and other such consumer devices, and for making movies or burning DVDs.

ARS analyst Toni Duboise sees the Web survey as a potentially effective addition to those efforts.

"As far as reaching out to understanding...the market (of potential Mac users), that's a good thing for Apple," Duboise said. "Apple has been stuck at about 5 percent market share. Hopefully they'll get some analysis on why they can't grow their share. For one thing, the Apple story--the Apple experience--needs to get out there more for them to grow their share. This is a good avenue to do that."

User interfaces and software choices aside, Duboise said the survey could shed light on other concerns.

"It's an interesting tack...considering they just raised prices 100 bucks," Duboise said. "I think it's a good idea for them to gauge a reaction on the $100 price hike." On Thursday, Apple surprised many by jacking up the price on all three flat-panel iMacs, with the high-end model now selling for $1,899.

But Apple's increased search for defectors doesn't necessarily mean there are more defectors to be had.

Roger Kay, an analyst with IDC, said the 40 percent new Mac buyer number cited by Apple's Croll is much higher than what Apple communicated in January.

"They have to be claiming the iMac is bringing buyers out of the woodwork who hadn't been there before," Kay said. "This certainly represents a higher-than-market average in the new buyer mix."

Croll would not break down the 40 percent figure in terms of the new iMac or Windows converts. If there is a breakout, it would be given when Apple reveals its second-quarter fiscal earnings in mid-April.

"I'm skeptical of those numbers, that 40 percent rate," ARS' Duboise said. "I haven't seen any hard data to back that up, such as an increase in market share."

Apple's U.S. computer market share in the fourth quarter was 3.1 percent, up from 2.4 percent a year earlier, according to IDC. For the year, the share remained steady at 3.9 percent compared with 2000. Worldwide, Apple's share rose to 2.2 percent from 1.9 percent fourth quarter to fourth quarter. But Apple lost share between 2000 and 2001, down to 2.6 percent from 2.9 percent.