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Sorry, You Just Can't Pin Down Apple Consumers

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 9, 2010 5:00 AM PT

When I first noticed the Retrevo Pulse headline for its study that examines consumer interest in buying the Apple iPad, my first reaction was eerily in line with the traffic-grabbing headline, "Apple iPad Hoopla Fails to Convince Buyers." I'm an unabashed fan of almost every Apple product the company in Cupertino produces, and yet I'm still not convinced the iPad is a worthy addition to my personal Apple lineup.

Sorry, You Just Can't Pin Down Apple Consumers

Sure, I love the idea of kicking back on the couch and browsing the Web with flicks and pinches, and I like the idea of taking the iPad places my MacBook never goes to blast through a few hundred emails. And yes, iTunes movies and TV shows on a bigger screen would be much appreciated. With a screen that large, maps would not only help me remain found at all times, but the screen real estate would also do much to eliminate momentary bouts of zoomed-in confusion: If I'm on 221st, where's Banderello Street again?

Then there's books. Oh, for the love of books. Amazon's Kindle was never an option for me precisely because I knew Apple would produce some sort of device capable of being an e-reader -- and it would be capable of doing so much more, too. I very much like the idea of one device for reading, watching, communicating and managing my life. Yet, the iPad might not provide enough bang for the buck.

Retrevo's Consumer Sentiments

Retrevo's study looked at consumer interest before Apple's iPad announcement and then again after the announcement. Before the announcement, 26 percent of respondents said they'd heard about the "Apple tablet" but weren't interested in buying one, according to Retrevo. After the announcement, that same response jumped to 52 percent.

On the surface, this appears to say that consumers were aware of the looming Apple tablet, but after Steve Jobs announced it, they decided it wasn't something they wanted -- hence the headline and my own personal response. (The more I know, the less compelled I am to buy.)

However, there are some problems with these assumptions arising from the Retrevo survey. Retrevo asked two different sets of its users before and after, so as near as I can tell, you can't assume that a particular person went from interest to disinterest. Granted, this isn't what Retrevo is studying -- Retrevo seems to be looking more at an overall sentiment snapshot. So the consumer sentiment overall changed.

Yet there's more to this than the headlines suggest. Before, 3 percent said they were aware of an Apple tablet and that they would like to buy one. After the event, this number jumped to 9 percent. Along a similar line, before, 35 percent said they hadn't heard of the Apple tablet and that they weren't interested, yet after, this same number dropped to just 18 percent.

To me, these two other questions seem to imply that Apple's announcement actually made some very positive headway. In fact, if you take Retrevo's two responses that indicate both awareness and interest in buying, we see that Apple's iPad actually gained consumer interest. Here's the basic math: Before 19 percent said they were interested but they'd wait and see, plus 3 percent said they think they'd buy one -- that's a 22 percent total with an initial positive response. After, 21 percent said they were interested but needed more information before they'd buy one, plus 9 percent said they think they'd buy one -- that's 30 percent total with an initial positive response.

The problem here is that awareness of a device doesn't mean any of these people are actually the right consumers for a device. I'm aware of the Google Nexus, but there's little Google could say that would sway me from my iPhone. Same goes for a rumored Microsoft Zune phone running Windows Mobile 7 -- before any announcement or after, I'm still not the right buyer for a Zune phone (even though today's Zune is surprisingly svelte). So, who are the right consumers?

The Problem with Apple Consumers

Regardless of Retrevo's intentions and methodology, in my opinion, there's a fundamental problem with trying to measure potential Apple consumers: Just because we bitch and moan doesn't mean that when push comes to shove -- when we step into one of Apple's shiny Apple Retail Stores -- that we won't walk out the doors with something we certainly don't need.

Want? Desire? You bet. Apple somehow knows how to trigger the buy response. Kind of scary. Like a cat that sees the movement of something small and must pounce on it, Apple consumers see shiny clean industrial design and the promise of a better life packed into something with flickering light -- and it's damn hard for them not to buy.

Do I actually need some device that's not a smartphone and not a laptop? Do I need something that fits in the middle? No. I do not. The brouhaha over the price of e-books -- US$9.99 for bestsellers or variable publisher-set pricing -- doesn't really matter unless you're a voracious reader. The minimal savings I would achieve would not pay for itself soon enough to justify the device in the first place.

However, that nice chair that Jobs had on stage during his announcement event, well, that's the promise of a more enjoyable life. And despite my iPad misgivings, that tantalizing vision is still hovering over my checklist of pros and cons. Just wait until after Kiefer Sutherland and his "24" superagent team saves the free world by flicking and pinching on an iPad. Just wait until after the iPad television commercials start hitting HDTVs across the land. Until then, all this iPad talk is just talk -- from me included.

I can make a list, and I can be utterly disappointed that the iPad OS won't give me the flexibility I desire, but if history is any indication, my purchase of an iPad may simply be inevitable. For instance, I have an iPhone, but now that I have an iPod touch, it's hard to imagine giving it up -- despite the fact that my iPhone does everything the iPod touch does, and more.

A year or so ago, Retrevo could have asked me if I was going to buy an iPod touch, and I would have told them no way. And yet, I have a second-generation iPod touch. Seems utterly irrational. How do you predict that?

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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