Switchers -- the sequel?

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Normally, my commute to and from work involves a pleasant ferry ride followed by a brisk walk to Macworld ’s San Francisco office. But a few weeks back, circumstances conspired to force me to alter my plans—instead of my normal ferry ride, I found myself using the BART commuter train.

In just the latest example of how my luck usually works, one of the rare times I rode BART happened to coincide with a computer glitch that shut down the entire system. So with no BART trains operating, I wound up taking the ferry home anyhow, along with several dozen displaced (and grumpy) BART commuters.

It would be fair to say the ferry operators reacted swiftly to this unexpected uptick in passenger traffic. The ferry captain’s voice cracked over the intercom, welcoming first-time riders and touting the benefits of frequent ridership—beautiful views of the bay, fresh air, seats for everyone, and the other kind of amenities you don’t typically find on a crowded commuter train. While he was talking, other crew members walked about the boat, handing out ferry schedules. It wasn’t exactly a subtle sales pitch, but it was an effective one—I’ve noticed a few more ferry passengers than before in the ensuing weeks.

There’s no better time for selling a worthwhile product than when you have a receptive audience, whether it’s a boat full of people grumbling about unreliable commuter trains or disaffected computer users looking for a better way to do their work. Which is why I think that Apple could take a page out of that opportunistic ferry captain’s book and start touting its offerings while the touting’s good.

Consider the computing landscape these days. The release of Windows Vista has been delayed …again. Concerns over viruses and spyware haven’t eased up any, so far as I know. And, as Forrester Research reported a little while back, Microsoft doesn’t really inspire the warm fuzzies among its clientele, particularly those who are A) affluent, B) big online spenders, and C) more likely than not to start directing some of those dollars Apple’s way.

While all this is happening, look at what Apple’s got cooking. It makes the most popular music player in the world—Apple said it’s shipped more than 50 million iPods —which has given the company an in with the Windows crowd. It will be rolling out brand new Intel-powered hardware all year long, raising the specter of performance improvements. I’m not saying Apple needs to break out the Ellen Feiss footage, but jumping on any reports of general Windows dissatisfaction with the message that there are viable alternatives might not be a bad idea.

Of course, maybe Apple’s already doing that, if not necessarily on the scale of a formal “Switch” campaign. The release of Boot Camp has generated a fair amount of interest among Mac users. But while being able to boot into Windows XP on a Mac might appeal to gamers who get to play titles that would never appear on this platform or office workers who absolutely have to run Microsoft Access, it’s something the vast majority of Mac users will probably never need to do. It is something, however, that would appeal to a good many Windows users, particularly those who’ve been contemplating a switch to Mac hardware but may not want to dive in completely at first.

So even if Apple isn’t making like the captain of that ferry boat and explicitly courting someone else’s dissatisfied customers, that’s not to say the company isn’t doing exactly that in a more subtle way. And it doesn’t take much day-dreaming to see how those efforts could pay off for Apple—and the Mac platform—a little further down the road.

Edited to correct the name of Ellen Feiss, whose surname is not “Fleiss” as some blog authors would have you believe.

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