Get Excited For Microsoft Stores!

Have you been clamoring to play with Microsoft Windows 7 on a big screen? Or maybe you've been dying to try out Microsoft Access. Well, your wait is finally over: the Wall Street Journal reports today that Microsoft will be opening retail stores, in a clear nod to the Apple Stores' success. Microsoft is a little late to the game, but could these stores be a success? I just don't see it.

The Product

The first question you probably have is: "Um, what exactly will they be selling?" The WSJ piece addresses that:

The store's spacious floor plan will showcase everything from laptops running Windows 7 to mobile phones running Microsoft software to Xbox 360 game consoles, which customers will be able to play on a 94-inch screen in the store, this person said.

Microsoft really only has three kinds of products: software (Windows, Office, etc.), gaming systems (Xbox) and the Zune mp3 player.

Let's start with that last one. When I say "iPod," I don't need to say "mp3 player" afterwards, because everybody knows what an iPod is. That's not the case with the Zune. While iPods dominate the market in mp3s players with more than 70% share, the Zune has a mere 3% to 5% of the market, based on a few sources I found.

So few will likely be excited to visit Microsoft stores to look at Zunes. Luckily, the Xbox does a little better. I'd imagine the stores will get some visitors for gamers who want to check out the latest Xbox games and prototypes.

But what about Microsoft software? Most technology based stores I've been to -- like Apple's, Samsung's and Sony's -- all feature hardware. Could the same concept work for software? The kind Microsoft peddles isn't very thrilling in an interactive format. I mean, what can you do with an operating system? "Ooooh! Look I moved a file from one folder to another!" And how about Office? Are people going to line up to manipulate a spreadsheet?

I just don't see the excitement. One of the reasons company stores work for some technology companies is because of their focus on design. The popular stores I mentioned earlier including Apple, Samsung and Sony Style are all slick and trendy. I'm not sure how Microsoft hopes to compete with that.


But maybe that's the point. Microsoft could hope these stores change its image. The WSJ piece also notes:

It's no coincidence that Microsoft is timing its first store's opening with the release of Windows 7, an operating system that has garnered positive buzz among reviewers.

Maybe these stores will serve as sort of prolonged Microsoft advertisements that seek to prove that it's cool and modern -- just like Apple. Of course, if that's their game, then they've got to deliver. Staffing and keeping the lights on in dozens of retails stores is also a pretty expensive advertising tactic.


The WSJ piece also explains another purpose. One of the great things about the Apple store is that you can go there for support. Microsoft has the same goal for its stores:

"Our customers have told us they want more choice, more value and better service, and that's what we'll deliver through our Microsoft Stores," said David Porter, Microsoft's corporate vice president of retail stores.

Yet, it's a little different, isn't it? With the exception of iPods and my iPhone, I'm a lifelong PC user. The problems I encounter on PCs have always been of two sorts: viruses/spyware or driver conflicts. Can Microsoft really address these kinds of problems in its stores? After all, these aren't really problems with Windows -- at least not exactly. Microsoft isn't explicitly in the virus/malware removal businesses. It also doesn't have a whole lot of power over the drivers that third-party vendors create for PCs. Apple, on the other hand, has more control over its systems from hardware to software, so it's more natural for its stores to provide support.

I guess Microsoft could instead focus on "how to" classes for its operating system and office products. That's fine for those who don't know how to move files around or change fonts in Word. But I don't think that lack of instruction is what's driving many consumers into the arms of Apple. Those switching like Macs' lack of viruses, fewer errors and better design. The kind of support Microsoft could deliver in its stores likely won't address any of that. And if it did, then it might as well just have better over-the-phone service instead, because who wants to have to drive to the Microsoft store to get a virus removed?


Finally, I also find the chosen locations of the first few Microsoft stores puzzling. the article says the first two will be located in the metropolises of Scottsdale, Arizona and Mission Viejo, California. Who needs New York City, Los Angeles, Washington or Chicago? But maybe we should give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, and assume they'll expand into more significant locales once they've had success with their first stores. I wouldn't hold your breath.