Microsoft looks to be taking another page out of Apple's book—it's going to be open a series of high-street retail stores. The company's even appointed a new Vice President of Retail Stores to oversee the project. But will this scheme work out for the software giant?
Microsoft's erstwhile arch-rival Apple's stores set a new precedent for high-street electronic shops—the whole Apple Store experience fits right in with the company's high-quality design ethos, with neat lines of products set out ready to be played with in a typically minimalist environment. Entering an Apple Store to buy an Apple product is much different from popping into your local big-box retailer to buy a laptop or PC, and that's precisely how Apple wants it to be. "Think differently," remember?
But Microsoft obviously wants to "think the same," or at least similarly. In a press release announcing the appointment of Dave Porter, formerly at DreamWorks SKG and Wal-Mart, as CVP of Retail Stores, Microsoft uses typically bland corporate speak: Porter will transform "the PC and device-buying experience for retail consumers." From what and into what isn't specified. Microsoft's COO Kevin Turner tries to clear it up—the stores will change the "PC and Microsoft buying experience at retail by improving the articulation and demonstration of the Microsoft innovation and value proposition so that it’s clear, simple and straightforward for consumers everywhere." Porter's words on the matter are that he's "excited about helping consumers make more informed decisions about their PC and software purchases."
It does seem to mean that Microsoft stores will showcase the capabilities of Windows and other Microsoft products and demonstrate the value for money they offer.
Microsoft certainly makes enough products to present in a high-street store, but the shop itself will have to be pretty innovative in design to be successful. But since Microsoft doesn't make its own PCs, it'll sell partner manufacturers machines—and probably from several vendors, less the Redmond-based company anger one of its key resellers. That will inevitably result in a hodge-podge of desktops and laptops on display, that will highlight the different hardware characteristics of each device as much as show-off the Windows OS they're demonstrating. And with multiple Windows 7 versions upcoming, setting up an articulate demo of which version is best for who will be tricky. Will walking into a Microsoft store be a cluttered stress-inducing experience?
Contrast that with Apple's keep-it-simple-stupid philosophy of having a single OS and short list of software products on a tightly-controlled, similarly-styled hardware suite shown in stores where the philosophy is to get the public hands-on and let the machines sell themselves.
But it's interesting to hear of a new rumor that Apple's planning a retail innovation of its own, in the form of a serious store makeover. The switch will apparently change the emphasis from hardware to marketing—presumably Apple's happy it's hardware is well known now, from the success of the iPhone if nothing else, and is moving to promoting the benefits of Apple systems. The first thing shoppers will meet, in this new setup, is a "Why You'll Love a Mac" section, demonstrating the benefits of using OS X and Apple productivity software versus running a Windows PC.
However it turns out, it sounds a lot like both tech giants are embarking on a public education initiative: the "I'm a Mac," and "I'm a PC" debate taken to a new level.