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If a sampling of Macworld's Reader Panel is any indication, the release of OS X 10.2 should be a success for Apple, as it continues to refine and promote its next-generation operating system. But the immediate future of .Mac, Apple's fee-based online services replacing the free iTools, looks decidedly less rosy.

Those were the opinions of 466 Macworld Panelists selected at random by Karlin Associates. A week after July's Macworld Expo in New York, the market-research firm contacted the panelists to gauge their reactions to the products announced by Apple during the biannual trade show. In addition to OS X and .Mac, panelists fielded questions on the new 17-inch flat-panel iMac, the changes to the iPod product line including the addition of 20GB and Windows-compatible models, and Apple's free iCal and iSync applications.

A week after the July 17-19 Expo, nearly all of the panelists -- 93 percent -- had heard about Apple's planned update to OS X, code-named "Jaguar." Indeed, the majority of the respondents had heard of three other of the major announcements at the New York trade show -- the 17-inch flat-panel iMac (83 percent), 20GB iPod (81 percent), and .Mac services (66 percent). Awareness of the iCal and iSync apps was lower -- 45 percent and 42 percent, respectively -- perhaps because the new programs won't ship until September.

Jazzed for Jaguar

The panelists appear to be anticipating the August 24 release of Jaguar, which tweaks existing features while adding new capabilities to OS X.

Fifty-eight percent of the panelists described the update as either very important or important to them, while 20 percent said it wasn't important. Nearly two-thirds of the readers surveyed -- 63 percent -- said they were either very likely or somewhat likely to upgrade to OS X 10.2 in the next six months. Only 9 percent said they were not likely to upgrade at all.

Among the 358 respondents who said they were familiar with OS X, the most appealing feature of Jaguar is the promised improvements to the Finder -- and by a wide margin. With 44 percent of the respondents citing the Finder improvements as the most appealing feature, the next most popular features were improvements to the Mail and Address Book tools (14 percent) and the Rendezvous networking technology (13 percent).

One feature that the respondents didn't find appealing was OS X 10.2's $129 price tag. In a section of our survey reserved for reader comments, complaints about Jaguar's price were a recurring theme.

"The biggest problem I have with OS X 10.2 is the pricing," one reader wrote. "As someone that just recently (three-and-a-half months ago) purchased an iMac, shelling out another $130 for a point release is not something I am willing to do."

The $129 cost of Jaguar may have been a common complaint, but survey respondents were less unified on what Apple should charge for the update. "Jaguar is cool, but it should be free for those of us who have supported (and purchased) the beta versions of OS X," one wrote. "The Jaguar upgrade need not be free," another countered, "but charging full price to those who've essentially paved the way for this update by installing and using prior versions of OS X seems mean-spirited."

To Subscribe or Not to Subscribe

The Macworld Reader Panel was less enthusiastic about .Mac. The online services offered by Apple include the e-mail addresses, online storage, and HomePage Web-site creation tool formerly available through iTools, along with antivirus and backup applications. A .Mac account costs $100 a year; existing iTools users can subscribe for $50 through September 30 for the first year of service.

Close to one-third (30 percent) rated .Mac important to themselves or their business, although only 8 percent considered it very important. But nearly as many respondents (27 percent) said that .Mac was not at all important to them.

.Mac's importance increases among the 315 respondents who already have an iTools account. Thirty-nine percent rated it as either important or very important, while 21 percent said it was not at all important.

But that doesn't translate to .Mac subscriptions. While current iTools users are more likely to subscribe -- 30 percent compared to 24 percent of the overall respondents -- the majority of the panelists won't be using .Mac. Nearly two-thirds -- 62 percent -- say they not likely to subscribe. Among iTools users, that percentage drops slightly to 59 percent.

If Apple is looking for a reason behind the lack of enthusiasm for .Mac, it needn't look farther than the price of the online services. That was the most frequent complaint among respondents. "I like what Apple has done in the way of iTools services and feel that improvements and additions to the service would be very beneficial, but I feel that we deserve, as clients of Apple, a free service with e-mail, Internet storage, etc.," a panelist said.

Other respondents were less diplomatic. "The price point for .Mac is ridiculous, and I believe it's going to cost Apple a ton of money," one wrote. "There are many cheaper alternatives."

Even among panelists who plan to subscribe to .Mac, there was grumbling about the price. "I am likely to sign up for the no-longer-free .Mac service in the first year to see how it develops, but only because the price for the first year is in the $50 range," a respondent said. "I'm fairly dubious at this point that any new value added will make continuing a subscription worth it at $100."

Several panelists suggested that Apple should consider a tiered pricing setup for .Mac. "We don't use many of the [.Mac] services and don't feel comfortable paying $99 per year for the ones that we do," a respondent wrote. "While we agree that some services cannot be free, a better pricing structure is needed."

"It seems like there could be a way to allow individuals to keep their addresses," another offered, "but perhaps not get the added Web space, virus software, etc."

Hardware Hoorays

The unveiling of a flat-panel iMac with a 17-inch display and Apple's revised iPod offerings received a warm reception from our panelists.

According to our poll, Apple made the right move adding a 17-inch display to the iMac -- 69 percent of respondents said the desktop was more appealing to them because of the new screen size. Only 9 percent cited the Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics card as a factor, while 14 percent found the 15-inch flat-panel iMac offerings appealing enough.

"I think it was a good move on Apple's part to increase the size of the monitor," one respondent wrote. "I'm jealous. I wish I could trade in my 15-inch [iMac] for the 17-inch."

Lower priced 5GB and 10GB models appear to be the big winner among Apple's iPod announcements. Respondents are more than twice as likely to cite price cuts over the new 20GB capacity (51 percent versus 20 percent) when asked what interested them the most about the latest iPod news.

The large majority of respondents (77 percent) approve of Apple's plan to sell the iPod to Windows users. Only 3 percent thought it was a bad move while 13 percent couldn't care less. "I think that iPod for Windows will be good financially," a respondent said. "However, I think it is counterintuitive in light of the 'Switch' campaign."

Coming Soon: iCal and iSync

Respondents are more likely to try iCal than iSync when the two free programs ship in September. But longer-term, more of our panelists consider iSync -- an all-purpose synchronization tool that connects Macs with mobile devices -- as an important application.

About one in four respondents see iCal as important, though only 5 percent rated it as very important. Thirty percent rated it as unimportant. Compare that to iSync, which 40 percent of respondents rated as important (14 percent calling it very important) and 33 percent calling it unimportant.

The majority of our panelists (54%) are likely to try iCal when Apple releases it. A slightly small percentage, 43 percent, will try iSync when it ships.

Final Impressions

The majority of respondents were impressed with the product news coming out of Macworld Expo July, while only 13 percent described themselves as unimpressed. However, 25 percent of the panelists said they were neither impressed nor unimpressed by what they heard about the trade show.

"The news coming out of Macworld confirms Apple as an important and long-term player in the world of computing," one respondent said.

Others offered more conditional praise. "I am very optimistic about iSync and the Bluetooth initiative taken by Apple," one wrote. "However, I am extremely disappointed in Apple's move to scrap iTools in exchange for .Mac."

"I'm excited about [OS X] 10.2 and think the 17-inch iMac is gorgeous and a great deal," another added. "However, I am not at all happy with the .Mac announcement, which leaves no options open for users."

Among respondents dissatisfied with the Expo announcements, the most common complaint -- after .Mac and Jaguar pricing -- was the absence of more hardware news. "I was hoping to hear more hardware announcements," a panelist wrote. "Faster towers, faster PowerBooks with SuperDrives, a new PDA-type device."

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