I've been a vocal critic, some might even say jackass critic, of Microsoft's planned and upcoming retail stores, but some reader reaction to our coverage of the news that Big Redmond was poaching Apple's retail management and staff gave me pause for thought. That thought - and I assure you no one was as surprised as me - was that the company's ridiculous "Guru Bars" might not be as big a disaster as many in the Mac community expect it to be.
Indeed, they might even be a good thing for Microsoft in their efforts to blunt Apple's successful efforts to brand the Mac as less troublesome than a Windows box.
Make no mistake that the odds are stacked against Big Redmond - and I frankly still expect the Guru Bar to be a joke - but let's start with establishing the context of my thoughts.
In yesterday's piece, several readers made jokes about the expected volume of Windows customers in need. Member vpndev said, "They need to hire an extra helping of 'Guru Bar' specialists, not managers. And also organize crowd control for those waiting to get to the Guru Bar with XP/Vista/Win7 problems. That line will stretch down the mall and back again."
Some guests chimed in along the same lines, and the thing is that I agree. Windows customers with complaints and trouble will be many and sundry, and the whole thing could be a PR and perception disaster for Microsoft. I've worked at a company that provided support for Windows users - admittedly some years and many versions of Windows ago - and I can just imagine the ugliness that might ensue.
Somewhat ironically, therein lies the opportunity for Microsoft.
One of Apple's strongest recruitment tools for the Mac platform has been the Windows platform itself. From the crappy hardware to driver issues to the disparate support quandaries of having separate hardware and OS vendors, the Windows experience is just awful for a lot of people (though not everyone, so spare me your pro-Windows e-mails).
Apple has been able to capitalize on that over the years, which is part of the reason the company has seen half of its Apple Store Mac sales going to first-time Mac owners since the company first began opening its retail locations. Apple has also pressed this point in many of its "I'm a Mac" ads, which have resonated with so many people because of that poor Windows experience.
No matter how successful Microsoft's Guru Bars are, they won't eliminate this problem for the company. Windows will still be licensed to any and all comers, which means the hardware and software will still be separate. Until and if Microsoft were to try and enforce stringent hardware licensing (like Apple's cloning effort in the 90s, where cloners had to buy Apple-made logicboards), the variety and options that are the strength of the Windows platform will continue to be its weakness, too.
But, if Microsoft could develop the Guru Bar in such a way that it becomes a pleasant and painfree way for Windows users to resolve their many problems, it could radically shift perceptions for some of its user base, reducing the power of Apple's marketing tool.
I've witnessed the power that Apple's Genius Bar has in acting as a reassuring backdrop for many Mac/iPod/iPhone owners many a time. "Ah, it's no biggee, I'll stop by the Apple Store and ask." I've heard many variations on that theme over the years - it happens when you're a writer in the Mac Web - and in my experience Apple's Genius Bar pays all sorts of reassurance dividends to Apple.
Most Windows users have no such safety net, and if they do, they likely aren't happy about the quality of whatever net they do have. The Windows repair business just isn't a happy place in my experience.
Again, though, if Microsoft can do the Guru Bar right - if the company can provide answers to people in a friendly and timely manner - if it can manage the flow of people so that it doesn't appear as if everyone and their brother has a broken PC - if it can juggle how to advise customers with hardware trouble when dealing with multiple hardware suppliers - if the company's Gurus can be as awesome as most of the Geniuses I've dealt with - if if if...
Well, if Microsoft can pull off a miracle with its Gurus Bars, the company might be able to give at least some of its user base - especially consumers - more of a feeling of security about owning a PC. That would be of enormous value to Microsoft in terms of boosting its brand value and at least slowing Apple's inroards into its consumer business.
All that said, I hardly expect Microsoft to actually pull off that miracle. If they do repairs, it will be a cluster@#&%. If they don't do repairs, many users will just get frustrated, and it will become yet another word-of-mouth recruiting tool for Apple ("But my brother-in-law said he got his Mac fixed at the Apple Store...").
Hell, if they just do virus removal, the lines will indeed back out the door.
No, I don't see how they can pull it off, but Microsoft has enough money to throw at the problem all day long, and given enough time they often work out how to do something well enough that enough people are satisfied with it. Accordingly, I won't count them out until the proof is baked into the pudding and the milk has been spilt under the bridge (or something like that).