Microsoft Stores Next to Apple Stores: Where's the Win?

As a columnist, there are days where you just dream something like this will land in your lap. This is one of those days. I wrote up the news coverage Wednesday, but more than 24 hours later I am still a little dumbfounded at the news that Microsoft is planning on opening up its own retail locations right next to some Apple Store locations.

Here, let me start off with some of the titles I was working with for this very column:

  2. "Steve Ballmer Lets His Incompetence Dangle for All to See"
  3. "Taking Pot Shots at Big Redmond Just Isn't Fun Any More"

I mean, really, Microsoft wants to highlight the stark contrasts between the two companies for everyone and their brother to see right there, plain as day? This is one of the worst ideas Big Redmond has come up with since Clippy. Or maybe even Bob.

OK, I'm not being fair to Clippy - he had his fans.

Our readers came up with some hilarious digs in the news coverage, with my favorite probably being ziploc's, "Once you enter the store the only way to get out of the store will be to find the door marked Enter, once through that door you will have the choice of Exit, Re-Enter or Take a Rest."

Anyway, what the heck are the Suits in Redmond thinking? Where's the win here? The biggest problem, for instance, will be that any and every time there are more people in an Apple Store than in the nearby Microsoft Store, the company will have demonstrated Apple's preeminence and greater desirability.

I am very much of the opinion that walking past an Apple Store and seeing all those people inside makes Apple's retail stores all that much more appealing to passersby. It's sort of an infinite feedback loop of popularity that will be made even more of an issue if contrasted against a comparatively empty Microsoft store.

If, on the other hand, Microsoft should somehow manage to attract more people, it will merely be written off to there being more Windows users. So where's the win?

Of course, Microsoft isn't planning this in some sort of delusional attempt to win a self-declared popularity contest. The company clearly feels like it needs to be in control of its own message, and hopes to use Apple's own techniques to do so. If it can do these things, the company can stop, or at least slow down, the inroads Apple has made into its businesses over the last few years.

Why not go ahead and glom off the enormous research Apple has put into finding the best locations? Clearly it's worked for Apple, so why not Microsoft?

Well, there are so many reasons, it's hard to find a place to start -- and I'm just a technology journalist sitting around cracking jokes and making fun of corporate giants. Surely they have folks who should be smart enough to realize the folly of this course of action, but then again we are talking about the company that makes Windows (and made Bob).

So, let's try it ourselves and see if we can help them out. For one thing, Microsoft doesn't have a lot of stuff to sell. Microsoft is, at its core, a company built around two products: Windows and Office. Yes, there is Xbox and peripherals like mice and keyboards, but the vast majority of the company's business comes from Windows and Office, and having its own retail locations won't help peddle these products.

In comparison, Apple has iPods and Macs and iPhones it can sell, and that's a big part of why Apple's retail locations have been so materially profitable for the company.

The other major purpose the Apple Store serves for Apple is as a base of operations to educate consumers. Apple needed high-profile locations to show off its products in the hands of employees under its control, that it trained.

Those are simply problems Microsoft has never had.

  • There are hundreds of thousands of stores around the world that sell and showcase Windows, Office, Xbox, MS peripherals, and the company's other products.
  • There are hundreds of thousands of consultants and enterprise services companies that evangelize the company's corporate and network-oriented products and services
  • Everyone and their brother already knows Windows, and those who work in a business environment know Office, too. Likewise, finding people who know and understand Xbox requires knowing a kid (or a kid in adult clothing).

Exposure and product awareness simply aren't problems facing Big Redmond.

But from where I sit, even if this difference in needs isn't the issue, Microsoft also lacks some kind of key product to draw people into its stores. Apple had the iPod to draw users by their millions. It was this that sent the popularity of the Apple Stores into the stratosphere, and the iPhone has helped kept the momentum. The Mac has been the beneficiary of this popularity, not the cause.

What will Microsoft use as its lure? The Zune? Please. Windows? No one cares. Xbox? Already well-represented throughout the world. Office? Zzzzzzz...

Coming back to the central premise of this column, the issue is not whether or not Microsoft can use or leverage its own fleet of retail stores, but whether putting some of these stores next to, or in close proximity to, Apple Stores is a smart move.

I think that the company will find that being contrasted to Apple does nothing more than highlight the very perception problem (I say reality) that has allowed Apple to dominate the digital music device market and the online music store market, to take enormous share in the smartphone market, and to gain significant share in the computer market.

That makes it a boneheaded move.