Poll position

Stare at surveys and poll numbers for too long, and you can come up with some pretty daffy conclusions. The bland, uninspired offerings you’ll find on network television on any given night are, more often than not, the by-product of one too many focus groups steering TV executives toward the least original programming decisions. You could fill a convention center with the politicians who use poll results as an excuse to pander, creating policies calculated more toward winning majority approval than actually solving anything.

But, used properly, survey results can also be an effective way to gauge how people feel about specific issues—especially when it comes to questions and concerns they might have. Which is why Apple could learn a lot from the recent Macworld Reader Panel survey conducted by Karlin Associates on the move to Intel-built chips in Macs.

I’m not talking about the survey’s main findings—is it really that shocking to learn that the promise of Intel-powered Macs appearing in 2006 might deter some people from shelling out for a PowerPC-based Mac this year? And as illustrative a glimpse into Mac users’ buying deliberations as the survey offers, it’s by no means the definitive word. Thirty-three percent of the respondents didn’t say that they wouldn’t buy a new Mac in the next 12 months because of the pending move to Intel chips, just that they were less likely to make that purchase. They could wind up buying a new Mac long before an Intel-based machine ever arrives just as easily as they could wind up playing the waiting game.

No, the thing about our survey that caught my attention—and should be catching Apple’s—are the unsolicited comments made by Macworld Reader panelists. At the end of most of our surveys, we include one final, open-ended question—“Any more comments?”—that respondents can answer any way they want. This time, a lot of them chose to pepper us with questions.

“Will all my expensive, current software still work with the [Mac] I buy in 2006?” asked one survey participant. Another said, “I’m worried about application updates for older Macs and compatibility with new applications running on older Macs.” And another: “I dread the viruses that I fear will plague the new system.”

One final comment from a respondent who seemed to sum up the mood of a lot of survey participants: “Before I can even come close to predicting how this will turn out, I need to learn more. Right now, we know very little.”

Macworld is trying to do its part to help expand what we do know. We’ve got answers to frequently asked questions like the ones listed above. (And to briefly answer some of those questions, most software will likely be updated to run on the new Intel architecture though whether you’ll have to pay for the update will vary from developer to developer, and viruses shouldn’t be a problem since the ones you see plaguing Intel-based PCs are attacking the Windows operating system.) And we’ve set up an Intel Transition page where we’ll put the latest breaking Intel information as we discover and digest it.

But Apple has a role to play in this process, too. Having announced a significant and far-reaching transition effort, it’s incumbent upon the company to provide as detailed an overview of what to expect as possible, to correct any misconceptions or flawed assumptions before they spiral out of control, and to address any concerns that its customers might have. Apple has done a swell job of making its case to analysts and developers. But when it comes to talking directly to the people buying its products, Apple has been noticeably silent from the moment Steve Jobs left the stage at this month’s Developers Conference.

Let’s go back to that politician metaphor for a moment. When the president makes a speech announcing a major policy initiative, he doesn’t retreat to the White House, never mentioning that particular policy again. He hits the road to talk up the new proposal, promote his agenda, and frame the terms of any ensuing debate.

That’s really what Apple needs to do here (minus the statecraft, ideally). But go to the company’s Web site, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence that Apple announced its Intel switch less than three weeks ago. If the idea is to oversee a seamless and stress-free transition, that seems like a funny way to kick things off.

To be sure, not every Mac user is plagued with worries about the Intel switchover. “The chips could be made by Frito/Lay for all I care,” said one of our survey participants. Similarly, someone who reacted to the Intel news by saying, “The thought that my next Mac might contain parts made by a manufacturer known for its PC chips fills me with dread, shame, and horror”—another survey response—is unlikely to be convinced otherwise by any amount of Apple persuasion. But, like it or not, there are Mac users out there with real, legitimate and very addressable concerns about this Intel business—isn’t it in Apple’s best interest to be out there addressing them?

Apple executives—well, one Apple executive in particular—have a well-earned reputation for being tight-lipped when it comes to talking about the future, addressing those kinds of topics only when it suits them. It should suit them now.

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