“Look out, Honolulu. We’re headed to Ala Moana center soon!” reads the Microsoft Store splash page for Hawaii. Many of you may have noticed the colorful barrier advertising where the new store will be, and some of you may have wondered, “What’s that all about? Why is a software company making a store?”
Most people see Microsoft and all they see is Windows — the ubiquitous operating system every Apple user loves to hate — and no one could blame them. But Microsoft is more than that… so much more. It’s easy to forget Microsoft runs several very successful hardware divisions, most famous of which is Xbox which, like an embattled teen, worked very hard for a long time to separate its image from that of its stodgy parent company. In addition, Microsoft runs many more subtle hardware divisions. If you are a PC user and have bought a new webcam or mouse, odds are good Microsoft made it. The Microsoft store is its attempt to help you remember they are more than just software.
So why a store? Like many things in the tech space, this story actually begins with Apple and Steve Jobs’ freakish insight into brand management. For a long time, computer manufacturers believed customers simply did not want to go to dedicated stores to buy their computers. Much of this thinking was the result of Gateway stores, which were put in low-rent, low-traffic locations, leading to their failure. Problem was, Steve wasn’t happy with how his products were being displayed, presented or perceived. People couldn’t understand just how amazing the Mac was without getting to play with it, and the sales staff were not qualified or passionate enough to convey it.
Jobs and those close to him perceived his brand was being badly managed, so he set out to fix it with beautiful stores in high-traffic locations where people could try out Apple products, guided by friendly, passionate staff who could teach people to love Apple. And customers loved it.
Remember how you thought Microsoft only made Windows (and maybe Xbox)? That’s because Microsoft’s distributors have not been good stewards of Microsoft’s brand. Best Buy employees probably couldn’t comprehend the entirety of Microsoft’s product sprawl, even if they wanted to. They can’t tell you about the awesome things Microsoft is doing or can do, because that’s not in Best Buy’s direct best interest. Microsoft has apparently realized this and, as they are admittedly prone to doing, are taking cues from Apple’s previous successes (Zune, anyone?) and emulating their model.
So why is Microsoft so brand conscious now, when they were previously content to share shelf space with the likes of Logitech? Frankly, because Apple and Google are becoming bigger threats. Some analysis suggests iPads and Android tablets have started eating into Windows market share; Windows Phone has failed to achieve significant traction; and Microsoft may be afraid its new Surface tablet (which people I admire have actually said is very awesome) may suffer the same fate as a newcomer to a market filled with iPads and Android tablets.
So, what can you expect at a Microsoft store? Well, if you’ve seen an Apple store, you’ve pretty much experienced what a Microsoft store will be like. Friendly staff and a smorgasbord of Microsoft’s fanciest hardware to play with, and an immersion into just what the the ecosystem Bill Gates built is capable of, all in a fun, airy, pleasantly well-designed environment that will give the Microsoft brand the love it so desperately needs to survive in the coming decades.