By Harry McCracken | Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm
Agreeing with me is not a prerequisite for Technologizer contributors. (Actually, I always learn more when our other writers–and commenters–have a take that’s in conflict with mine.) I was happy to read Ed’s post on why he shares Steve Ballmer’s apparent belief that Microsoft should build many more Microsoft Stores. But even though Ed makes his case cogently, I’m still not sold on the argument that Microsoft should mount an Apple-like campaign to sell products directly to consumers through hundreds of retail outlets. Here’s why.
1. “Microsoft” is not a unifying concept. For one of the world’s largest companies, Apple makes shockingly few products–and they all work together, look alike, and appeal to a certain kind of person. They’re a matched set, and it makes sense for them all to be on display in one place. Microsoft, on the other hand, makes all kinds of stuff aimed at all kinds of people; there’s nothing tying together Xbox, a Microsoft mouse, and SQL Server. Yes, I know that Microsoft Stores focus on consumer products, but even then, “Microsoft” is a corporation, not a lifestyle or an aspiration or a rallying cry. (That helps to explain why Microsoft Stores look so much like Apple Stores that they’ve been roundly mocked for their copycatting.) When I first heard of Microsoft Stores, I said that the notion of a Microsoft Store feels like that of a Procter and Gamble Store; I still feel that way.
2. Microsoft Stores can’t support Microsoft products like Apple Stores can support Apple products. It’s possible for an Apple “Genius” to know nearly everything there is to know about a Mac, an iPhone, or an iPad, in part because Apple is responsible for (as Steve Jobs likes to say) the whole widget. The world of Windows, however, involves a nearly infinite array of PCs from many, many manufacturers. No Microsoft expert can truly be an expert on all of them. And while Apple Geniuses who fail to solve problems on the spot can accept Apple products for warranty service–no matter where you bought them–a Microsoft Store can’t fix the Acer PC you bought at Best Buy or the HP one you bought at Office Depot.
3. Microsoft can’t tick off its partners. When Apple started opening its own storefronts in 2001, Apple products weren’t widely carried by big retailers–they were mostly stocked by mom and pop stores (some of whom were not pleased with Apple getting into the retail business). As Ed says, Microsoft products are readily available at major stores just about everywhere. I don’t think that Best Buy would be thrilled if Microsoft Stores started popping up across the nation. And I know it would be nonplussed if Microsoft took Ed’s suggestion and began offering exclusive deals through its stores that Best Buy couldn’t match. I don’t think Microsoft can afford to be as capricious about the feelings of major retailers as Apple was about independent Mac shops a decade ago.
4. There’s just too much stuff. Even a smallish Apple Store can stock every Apple computer, every iPhone, every iPod, and every iPad, plus every Apple accessory and a goodly selection of third-party products. A Microsoft Store is doomed to incompleteness: it can contain only a smattering of Windows computers, an incomplete selection of other Microsoft products, and a sampling of third-party offerings. I don’t even know whether the Microsoft Stores that already exist have every Windows Phone 7 handset on display.
5. It’s just not necessary. Apple began opening its own stores in part because it was hard to find Apple products for sale, and even harder to find salespeople who could answer fundamental questions such as “Why should I buy this $1000 Mac instead of a $500 Windows machine?” It isn’t difficult to find Microsoft and Microsoft-related products. And because they’re the default–at least when we’re talking computers–they require less explanation. I can’t imagine that anybody doesn’t buy a Microsoft product because there aren’t more Microsoft stores–but if every Apple Store on the planet were to mysteriously disappear tomorrow, Apple would be in deep trouble.
I should note that I’ve never been in an Microsoft Store: there aren’t any here in the Bay Area, and I haven’t encountered any in my travels. It’s possible that visiting one would leave me less skeptical about the whole idea. Then again, it might reinforce my gut feeling.
Ed, if you’re reading this–feel free to step in and tell me why I’m wrong…