Microsoft is once again going to try its hand at retail stores (for example see the following CNET article). From my experience I think this is going to be horrible. But it does not have to be- Microsoft (if it had the will) could produce a great store that is profitable and improves the world. Here is my quick history and wish list.
Microsoft has tried retail outlets before. So we have some knowledge of what to expect.
In particular I am thinking of the Microsoft store that was part of the new San Francisco Metreon Mall (opened in June of 1999). At the time Microsoft had no good reason to produce such a store. They were not ready for a major consumer product push and didn’t release the original Xbox until 2001 or the Zune until 2006. This era was also a gap in their consumer operating system release cycle (Windows 98 was already out, Windows ME didn’t come out until Q2 2000 and Windows XP Q3 2001). In 1999 there still were Gateway computer retail stores and Apple Stores were still two years in the future. This Microsoft Store satisfied no discernible need, promoted no major strategy and was deservedly forgotten. From their own press release the purpose of the store was to sell “more than 90 items of apparel, desk accessories, office supplies and other items with the microsoftSF logo” ( see presspass). A fairly low marketing ambition- which predictably failed.
Fast forward to 2009. A Microsoft store could work, if Microsoft were willing to make a good one. I doubt they are willing. Likely they feel they can easily cut themselves a lucrative slice of retail pie (now that they have major consumer products like Xbox, Zune and Windows Media Center). This will fail- these are all significant products, but together they don’t make for an interesting store or cohesive shopping experience or lifestyle pitch.
Instead, imaging the following store.
- A Microsoft store where a competent sales staff sells major brand PCs (like a Sony, HP, Leveno and so on). But for a small mark-up they wipe out the manufacturer’s defective Windows install and spyware. They install a clean full version of Windows 7 (or Windows XP). A store where they consult with you and which version of Office really is best for you and then sell and install this.
Even I would go there (and I use Apple OSX and Linux almost exclusively). Microsoft is too big an ecosystem to ignore. We need to be able to buy mainstream (and that means Microsoft) PCs, operating systems and software packages at retail (and not just at box stores).
Let me illustrate my point using the last time I purchased a PC. After an hour of trying to deal with Leveno’s atrocious web-site (they really do not want to sell computers retail) I got up and drove to the Metreon Sony Store and purchased a Sony Vaio.
Here is what happened:
- The Sony Vaio could not handle the Vista it came installed with.
- The Sony Vaio came without restore media- making a clean re-install of the operating system impossible.
- The Sony Vaio came laden with all kinds of crapware (trial anti-virus software, Internet poker offers).
- I (later) spent around $400 on Office Professional just to find out I could not uninstall enough of the Sony demo version of Office to get rid of some sort of killing dependence on “Contact Manager” (some sort of enterprise wide service that a home PC would not have).
- I purchased two old copies of XP. I used one to reformat the Vaio and donated that to my father in law for web-surfing. We then used the other copy of XP to host Office Professional (which we really wanted and needed) inside a virtual machine on a hand-me-down Macbook. End of Microsoft Windows (outside of virtual machines) in our household. If Windows can do something good we now have no way of seeing it (since we now only run Windows inside a virtual machine, which is unfair to Windows).
A careful reader would say “this is unfair, it was Sony that was bad not Microsoft.” That is correct. But there really (right now) is no way for an individual consumer to directly deal with Microsoft. Eliminate some of the wall of stupid between me and Microsoft and I probably would use more of their products.
Here is what I (and probably most other consumers would pay big for).
- A Microsoft store that re-sells major brand PCs (Sony, HP so on) that have been opened, re-imaged with a clean OS from Microsoft (not the evil OEMs) and given out with install/restore media.
- Ability to buy a copy of Office Professional that will work on my PC. Here is my proposition. I drop off my PC and $400, next day I come back and take back only the PC and I have a copy of Office Professional that works and isn’t whining about a bunch of unresolved dependencies to servers and services I do not own. I also need to know which version of Office to get (and I know it may cost more than the cheapest one) without reading some impenetrable “enterprise white paper.”
- A store with a staff that lets me safely say “I don’t know Dad, maybe you should take it back in to the Microsoft Store.” I’ll pay. I’d buy training, support, warrantees, read marketing materials and try product demos
Again, a careful reader would point out that all of these activities are labor intensive and going to be very low margin. This too can be fixed. Once Microsoft installers are wasting Microsoft’s time and money (instead of wasting my time and money) the installers will be fixed. Installing Microsoft Office could be come as easy as selecting a new application in Ubuntu (my current gold standard in easy installs).
I would welcome and support a good Microsoft retail effort, I just don’t believe one to be very likely.
Data Scientist and trainer at Win Vector LLC. One of the authors of Practical Data Science with R.