A Store That's The Apple Of Microsoft's Eye

Microsoft's new stores may mirror Apple's, but both are trying to solve similar retailing problems.

A portal to a parallel computing universe opened at the Tysons Corner Center mall in Fairfax County, Virginia, Thursday morning. In this alternate reality, enthusiastic crowds were greeted by cheering employees at the opening of an elegant boutique stocked with touchscreen smart phones and tablets, ultralight laptops and all-in-one desktops - all running Microsoft software.

The reality of the Microsoft Store, the Tysons location is its 14th, is that, yes, it looks a heck of a lot like the Apple Store. It has the same shoebox lineup, with computers and mobile devices displayed on tables for easy evaluation; as in Apple's store, a tech-support desk and a small theater area await at the back.

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(Said Brad Smith, a Microsoft vice president in town for the opening: "It's the nature of retail; you go to Saks and you're going to see some similarities to Nordstrom.")

But the Redmond, Wash., firm is mostly trying to crack the problem Apple was facing when it got into the retail business in 2001: The merchandise doesn't get the best presentation in other stores such as Best Buy or Walmart.

In too many outlets, the computers on display are either stuck behind store screensavers or exhibiting all the junk software preloaded by manufacturers. Good luck finding more than one or two Xboxes to play with. If there are any Windows Phone 7 smart phones in sight, you can't count on being able to turn them on. And in-store tech support? That will cost extra.

The Microsoft Store rewrites that retail script. The hardware on display, including a variety of non-beige-box computers from such vendors as Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba, is all powered up, online and ready for you to try. Everything seems clearly labeled; for once, the price tags of laptops uniformly list their weight and estimated battery life.

The free Wi-Fi and stools in front of each display table invite you to spend some time. So do distractions like the video walls lining the store, the bank of Xboxes on which you can try new games and the interactive tabletops running Microsoft's Surface kiosk software, on which you can play simple games and look up nearby shops.

Another rarely seen Microsoft venture receives a prime placement at the front of the store: "slate" tablets running its Windows 7 desktop operating system. That's a curious choice, considering how poorly slates have sold.

Software and peripherals line the edges of the store. The selection invites speculation about where Microsoft thinks those businesses are heading: Xbox titles vastly outnumber Windows productivity releases, and conventional digital cameras are absent.

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The attractiveness of the store's pricing varies. All of the peripherals I checked could be had for less elsewhere - a similiar situation prevails in Apple's stores - while Microsoft matched or beat other outlets' prices on three of four computers.

But in the Microsoft Store, desktops and laptops get what the company calls its Signature treatment: The company deletes third-party bloatware, does a general performance tuneup and installs its own, free Microsoft Security Essentials malware protection and Windows Live Experience suite.

(Signature also lumps in two questionable components: the company's Silverlight Web media player and its Bing browser toolbar.)

Signature, Assure (a combination of damage insurance, extended warranty and tech support sold with new computers) and free in-store tech support speak to a more ambitious goal than cloning Apple's retail efforts. With these services and its stores' clean design, Microsoft has put its vision of a better future for Windows computing on prominent display. Will the rest of the PC business take the hint?

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery