The upcoming wave of Microsoft Stores was touted at my local mall for months -- a location that also happens to have an Apple Store as well. Literally minutes after making my way through the throngs (no kidding) at the Apple location at my mall this weekend, I stepped into the much thinner clientele at the newly opened Microsoft Store. While the Windows company may be trying to mimic the Apple model in going straight to consumers with its cross-platform wares, the marketing mavens of Redmond are not following the Cupertino penchant for clean simplicity.
While The Apple Store is cluttered with people, the Microsoft Store is cluttered with signage. The walls literally transmit video of product. Both main side walls are video-fied, and the shelves of product pretty much start at the front door. This is more Best Buy than Bose in look and feel. The presence begs for comparison. Microsoft sets itself up for this with a good deal of mimicry. Rather than the blue-shirted Apple staffers (I am not sure who to call a "genius" anymore), Microsoft’s folks are multicolored, reflecting the main panes of the Windows logo. There is a Willy Wonka Oompa-Loompa vibe here.
Assuming that much of the Microsoft retail push would be around the upcoming reinvention of Windows in version 8, I expected the paned experience to be everywhere. I asked a staffer whether they had Windows 8 on display, since after all the developer’s and beta builds have been publicly available for months. “Yes, it is running over there,” he said as he pointed to a single diminutive tablet with an attached keyboard. Yup, that was it, kids. The biggest launch in Microsoft’s history, perhaps signaling whether the company and its market-dominant OS can remain relevant in the post-PC era, and they have it running on a single tablet on a counter in the back of their retail presence.
The staffer handed me over to “Product Advisor” Ronny who trotted me through a demo of Win 8 so fast I thought he might have somewhere else to go. Showing me the app store and mainly focusing on its handling of music, Ronny did demo the synchronized features across his Windows Phone and desktop, when I asked about it. And in the end he succeeded unwittingly in getting me interested more in the phone iteration than the desktop because he was actually showing me how he used the mobile OS to manage his friendships.
When I did get my hands on one of the Nokias showing off the mobile OS I was impressed by how well Microsoft had broken from iOS and Android’s mimicry of it to a tiled model where live information is surfaced on the mobile screen, not just hidden behind icons. Alas, it is hard to sell the idea of a mobile OS when the front line of tables in the storefront has just a handful of diminutive phones. There is no hook to the signage -- no theme or organizing principle to the experience. The store doesn’t say anything about Microsoft the brand other than that it is embedded in a lot of products.
There are incredible features and approaches hidden down in some of these Microsoft products and platforms. And yet, if the serviceable but uninspired retail presence is any indication, they are scrambling to find a song, a theme, a message -- or maybe just a brand -- to communicate them.