My colleague David Worthington reported on Thursday of Microsoft’s plans to open retail stores. I wanted to mull over the prospect before I said anything. It’s tempting to make fun of the concept–my PC World buddies and some PCW readers did a good job of that here–but I didn’t want to be impulsively snarky, or to come to any definitive conclusions about an idea that nobody (including Microsoft) knows all the details of just yet.
But as I’ve thought it over, I keep coming back to one thought. The Apple Stores work because Apple makes a limited, consistent, well-integrated set of products that make sense sitting on one set of store shelves. Microsoft doesn’t–its wares are vastly larger in number, far broader in mission, and less tied to each other. The company is a technology conglomerate in a way that Apple isn’t, and the notion of an all-Microsoft retail establishment makes me think of a Procter & Gamble store that sells Charmin, Pampers, Tide, Crest, Gillette Fushion razors, and Pringles chips under one roof.
Yes, yes, I know–any Microsoft store is going to hawk only a subset of Redmondian products. It’ll offer Windows 7 but not Visual Studio programming tools; Xbox 360 but not Dynamics CRM; mice and keyboards but not SQL Server. Even so, the products in question aren’t much of a cohesive package. And they certainly don’t represent an entire world in the way that Apple’s hardware, software, and services do.
In fact, isn’t that the primary virtue of Microsoft’s products, as hinted at by Windows’ “Life Without Walls” tagline? They’re available in a variety of forms on the products of countless companies, and work with almost every add-on and accessory on the planet. Microsoft is all about the commoditization of technology–and in this particular case, I mean that as a compliment rather than a criticism.
That’s a tough benefit to sum up in the form of a retail location. But on some level, every Best Buy in the country is a “Microsoft store,” since that chain is all about multiple choices and competing brands and low prices. The Microsoft products scattered inside a Best Buy make sense because they’re dwarfed by the selection of non-Microsoft products that work with Microsoft products. Just as P&G’s Bounty paper towels make more sense in the cleaning goods aisle of a supermarket than they would sitting next to Eukanuba dog food and Clearblue Easy pregnancy tests.
(Side note: While Best Buy sells Macs and related Apple products, they strike me as being out of context there, at least in the way that they’re presented–in a small, self-contained, somewhat lonely section off on the side. It’s like a tiny, alternate universe of stuff that won’t run any of the applications or games in Best Buy’s software section, and which aren’t compatible with all the hardware elsewhere in the store.)
Unless Microsoft plans to open up big boxes that anchor strip malls, its own stores surely won’t convey the true advantages of buying into the Microsoftian ecosystem. Judging from what Microsoft exec Robbie Bach has said about the retail initiative, I suspect that the goal is to promote the Microsoft world as a sort of pseudo-Apple matched set, in which you’re happier because you own a Windows laptop, a Zune, an XBox, and a Windows Mobile phone, and subscribe to Windows Live services.
But I could be wrong–and I’d be far more impressed if the Microsoft Store showed consumers how they can use a Windows laptop with an iPod, a PlayStation 3, a BlackBerry, and Google stuff…