Redmond has been copying Apple by opening glitzy stores, but the company will need to change its offerings to succeed in retail.
If imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery, Microsoft has been tossing compliments at Apple left and right with its new Microsoft retail stores. Not only are Microsoft stores taking up positions near Apple stores, but they have adopted much of the Apple feel. Yet beneath the surface, the two stores are as different as the products they sell.
The first Microsoft retail store opened in 2009, just about the time Windows 7 was released. Microsoft hasn't gone crazy with expansion though. After eighteen months, the company has only nine stores including one in the Mall of America in Minneapolis, three in California, and one near the company's home turf in Bellevue Wash. There are no stores at all in the northeast United States; it seems odd that Microsoft wouldn't yet have a presence in New York City for example. There are rumors that one may be coming this year.
I haven't been fortunate enough to visit one of these stores, but the people I've talked to who have been to them say there's something not quite right when compared to the Apple stores. They have a similar look and feel, but just don't quite capture the same essence. One person described the difference as "Apple stores have a minimalist Zen feeling to them, with just a simple and small placard next to each item to tell you its specs and price. Microsoft stores still seem more like a Best Buy." Have any of you been to one of the stores? What did you think?
There seems to be some internal debate at Microsoft about whether expanding the retail stores is a smart idea. I think it should, because today Microsoft is letting everyone else in the industry tell consumers about Microsoft. It's time that Microsoft said a few things about itself, unfiltered by its partners.
Here's what I mean: Having been to the big-box stores like Best Buy, I am convinced that much of the problem with Windows isn't Microsoft. It's the way Windows is being deployed by the hardware makers. Let's just look at a few examples.
First consider the purchase process. There is certainly a lot of variety in Best Buy as far as models and configurations of Windows-based PCs and notebooks are concerned. There are more models and options available there than in an Apple store. However, it isn't clear whether the hardware variety at Best Buy benefits the consumer that much, because they all share common flaws. Just about every model is slathered with poorly written "trial versions" of utilities that are designed to suck more money out of consumers once they get the hardware home.
The reason that junk gets onto the computer in the first place is that the hardware maker sees an opportunity for a few more dollars as well. Instead of simply making the money from the initial sale, or from repeat sales to satisfied customers, they can load dozens of little trialware or special offers onto the drive that create a horrible initial experience for the buyer. Instead of being able to use their computer successfully right out of the box, they're hacking through a bunch of popups and registration screens hawking some "indispensable" utility or service.