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Holiday shoppers won¿t forsake Apple this year

Despite greatly scaled back consumer spending this holiday season, Apple should fare better than most other companies, including most of its competitors.

A recent set of surveys conducted by Rockville, Md.-based ChangeWave Research on planned consumer purchases over the next 90 days hints that Apple's primary products, particularly its Macs, will remain popular.

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One would expect the opposite. Because Apple's products have a better-quality, higher price reputation, you'd think consumers would be looking for cheaper alternatives this year. But as usual, Apple defies conventional wisdom.

Though ChangeWave's predictive numbers usually overstate Apple's actual numbers as reported by the company, I've found they reflect general trends pretty well. The research firm conducts frequent surveys from among the 20,000 members of its "ChangeWave Alliance," a self-selected group of business professionals and early adopter consumers.

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ChangeWave's consumer PC purchasing survey (conducted Oct. 23- Nov.3 among 3,699 respondents) indicates that while Apple may sell fewer Macs than it would like, its share of the overall PC market pie should continue to grow -- even if only a bit.

The number of people planning to buy a PC this holiday season fell about 25 percent from the November 2007 survey, from 11 percent to 8 percent, among those looking to buy a laptop and from 8 percent to 6 percent among desktop-buyers.

According to the survey, Apple can expect 27 percent of the desktop buyers and 33 percent of the laptop buyers to choose a Mac. The desktop number is down two points, but the laptop number – which account for nearly two-thirds of all Mac sales – is up four points from a year ago.

The lack of a recent refresh in the Mac desktop line probably reduced enthusiasm for new iMacs, but Apple should cash in on the recently unveiled aluminum unibody MacBooks.

ChangeWave asked specifically about the new MacBooks; 7 percent of the respondents said they'd be very or somewhat likely to buy one. And 6 percent said they'd be very or somewhat likely to buy one of the previous-model, reduced-in-price MacBooks – proving the wisdom of Apple keeping it in the lineup.

More good news for Apple surfaces in ChangeWave's question asking likely PC buyers which operating system they'd want preinstalled, and I'm not talking about the 29 percent that would like Mac OS X Leopard.

A shocking 48 percent of the respondents said they'd prefer a version of eight-year-old Windows XP to Vista, which only 33 percent chose. The numbers for Vista actually dropped from last year, when Vista edged Windows XP 42 percent to 40 percent.

Apparently the continuous pounding Vista has endured in the tech media as well as from Apple's "Get a Mac" TV ads has become burned into consumers' minds. Vista's now-unsalvageable reputation will continue to motivate PC buyers to consider a Mac at least through 2009. The exact time frame depends on when Microsoft gets Windows 7 out the door. By then Apple should have Mac OS X Snow Leopard ready.

ChangeWave also had positive news for the iPhone. In a survey of smartphone buyers, 41 percent said they'd get an iPhone, compared to 24 percent who said they planned on Research in Motion's new BlackBerry Storm. T-Mobile's G1, which sports Google's long-anticipated Android operating system, scored only 4 percent.

Apple's Retail Store failed to gain ground in a survey on consumer spending trends, but at least held its own. When asked where they planned to shop for home entertainment products, 9 percent mentioned the Apple Store, same as last year.

As rough as this shopping season will be for all merchants, Apple's cachet should help it collect a big enough share of the few dollars spent to make a respectable quarter.

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