Apple Customers Still Most Satisfied

Apple again thrashed rival computer makers selling Windows PCs in an annual customer satisfaction survey, although by a smaller margin than last year, the poll's manager said today.

One reason, said David VanAmburg, the managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a survey conducted quarterly by the University of Michigan, is the rise of cheap netbooks that run Windows XP, not Vista.

"Vista had a lot to do with Windows PCs' poor showing last year," said VanAmburg. "The fact that a lot of the popular computers this year didn't include Vista had an impact."

Apple's customer satisfaction score of 84, down from a record 85 in 2008, was nine points higher than its nearest competitor, Dell, and 10 points higher than Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, which was acquired by Acer in 2007. Last year, Apple led HP by 13 points and Gateway by 12 points.

Apple's 84-point score was the second-highest in the personal computer category since ACSI began polling in 1996.

"The standard margin of error for a poll like this is plus-or-minus three points," said VanAmburg, "so the one-point drop [for Apple] may just be a little 'noise' in the results."

The last time Apple was bested in the ACSI survey was 2003, when Dell edged the California computer maker by a point. The following year, the two swapped places as Apple led Dell by two points.

"The gap has closed a little bit [between Apple and Windows PC makers], but it's still much bigger than it was four years ago," VanAmburg said. "Apple's leadership over the last five years has been huge."

Virtually all of Apple's rivals improved their scores this year. HP's Compaq brand jumped four points, from 2008's 70 to 74 this year, while Gateway/Acer climbed two points, from 72 to 74. The "All Others" category -- which VanAmburg said lumped vendors like Toshiba and Lenovo into a single satisfaction score -- increased from 72 to 74 points. Only Dell remained static at 75.

VanAmburg attributed the narrowing gap to the sales boom of lower-priced Windows notebooks, especially netbooks, which translated into increased satisfaction because consumers perceived they were getting more for their money.

But like last year, operating systems played a part. "In 2007-2008, we saw a dip for most Windows-based machines," said VanAmburg. "Then, HP fell by three points in just one year. Windows Vista was wreaking havoc with the numbers," he added, repeating what ACSI's chief researcher said last year.

The rise in popularity of netbooks, which typically run Windows XP, was a factor, he said.

Microsoft has pushed Windows XP for netbooks because Vista has been deemed too slow and too bloated to be used on the low-memory, slow-processor machines. Microsoft has also sold XP to computer manufacturers at prices significantly less than Vista's, a key element in its strategy to bump Linux off netbooks, and one reason why the Windows division's revenues have been down three straight quarters.

Part of Apple's success stems from its chain of retail stores, which offer free support and troubleshooting to Mac owners, said VanAmburg. Microsoft, which will open at least a pair of its own retail stores later this year in California and Arizona, may be able to duplicate Apple's approach. "If Microsoft does succeed [in its retail program], we could see some more movement in the scores," he said.

Even the shaky economy, which some thought would trim Apple's sales, hasn't had an impact on the company's satisfaction scores, VanAmburg said. "We measure value, how price is related to quality," he said. "People are paying more for Apple's computers, but they perceive that the quality of the product is 'enough better.'"

In fact, Apple has increased its sales gains year-to-year faster than the industry average, or at least seen lower declines than the average during the recession. In 2009's second calendar quarter, for instance, Apple sold 4% more Macs than it did in the same quarter the year before.

ACSI also measured consumer customer satisfaction with the top search engines, where Google maintained its lead over both Yahoo and Microsoft. Google, which again posted a score of 86 this year, led Yahoo by nine points and Microsoft by 11 points.

The poll's scores and commentary can be found on the organization's Web site.

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