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12/5/2006
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Apple: For The Hip Crowd Or The Hip-Replacement Crowd?

Apple disputes a study that says nearly half of its installed base of home computer users are 55 or older.

Is Apple the favored computer company for the young and hip, or does its flashy marketing mask an older clientele that's looking down the barrel at AARP membership?

The answer isn't clear.

A study published last week said 46% of Apple's U.S. installed user base is 55 or older. That's compared with only 25.2% of home PC users who are in that age category, reported MetaFacts, a national market research firm.

Now, those numbers are for homes where a Mac or a MacBook is the primary computer, and it doesn't take the iPod, a phenom of the Gen X and Gen Y crowds, into account. MetaFacts' numbers, though, caused quite a stir in an industry that sees Apple sitting on the cool edge of the market, drawing in throngs of young, tech-savvy users.

The survey also drew a quick response from Apple. Just a few hours after the results of the study were published on InformationWeek.com, an Apple spokeswoman sent an e-mail asserting that MetaFacts had it all wrong.

"The MetaFacts data you cited in your story is incorrect. Our customer data shows that only around 20% of Mac users are over the age of 55," wrote Lynn Fox, a director of Mac PR at Apple. "The Mac is more popular than ever, and we are thrilled that our products appeal to people of ages 1 to 100." Fox declined to be interviewed and wouldn't provide stats that would prove the MetaFacts data wrong.

Van Baker, research VP at Gartner, says Gartner doesn't have specific studies on the age of Apple's installed base, but the MetaFacts numbers are surprising to him.

"I sincerely doubt those numbers are accurate," says Baker. "That just runs completely counter to everything you see when you walk into an Apple store. It's not full of Americans approaching retirement, it's full of young people." Baker points out that one Gartner study showed that the average age of a male head of household buying a Mac is 39.4 years old, while it's 41 for a PC.

Dan Ness, an analyst at MetaFacts, says the company stands behind its numbers. He also says the numbers might differ from other studies because they're looking at an installed base, rather than online sales or sales from the last quarter or even several quarters.

"When you look at the installed base, that's the history of it," Ness says. "When you look at what was bought last week, that's the future. Apple's focus is on recent sales. They've told us they track who buys their computers. That's different than the installed base of computers that might be one or two or three years old. They're surprised because they're looking at people walking into a store [rather] than at the number of computers that have been sold over the years. We act as a reality check to what sometimes gets spun out there," Ness says.

Ness adds that Apple wants to focus on its younger users and build on its marketing campaign that focuses on the twenty-something-set dancing around with their iPods.

But Ness says the 55-and-older crowd is an important market segment, one with more disposable cash than its 30-years-younger counterparts. It's also a market segment that has been with Apple since its first computer hit the streets back in the mid-1980s.

Still, Tim Bajarin, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, says the "cool factor" is what drives people to the Mac. "When we talk to Gen X and Gen Y, they'll tell you the MacBooks are the coolest machines on the market," he says, noting that not every young buyer can afford to purchase the coolest machine out there. "It's true that if you really want to buy cheap, you clearly can buy a Gateway or an Acer. It'll be clearly in a cheaper pricepoint, but that doesn't mean that Acer is cool," Bajarin says.

Among new registered Mac users, only 22% to 24% are in the 55-and-older category, Bajarin adds.

Michael Gartenberg, VP and research director at Jupiter Research, says the numbers are contentious, but he notes that Apple tends to cut across the age demographics because it sports the young, hip image, while at the same time is known for its ease of use. Those ease-of-use features make the machines more appealing to older people who didn't grow up using computers.

"Like any company, you don't want to be pigeon-holed into any one demographic," says Gartenberg. "Apple has built a reputation on being innovative and being able to produce products that appeal to both old and young. We're seeing that their products cross barriers."

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