A visit to Microsoft's first store

Microsoft's new stores are an almost exact copy of Apple's. And they didn't do too badly. See for yourself.

Leaving the high desert mountains for a day I went Scottsdale's Fashion Square mall, where the world's first Microsoft no, make that Windows store opened. [For more photos, see my Gallery Tour.]

That's right, the logo on the store isn't Microsoft. It isn't even the wavy Windows flag logo. It is a newly styled Windows logo.

Microsoft store logo

Microsoft store logo

That's how you know this isn't your father's Microsoft. It's way different -- sleek, colorful, stylish, modern -- just like an Apple store.

The setting Set in the middle of the upscale mall -- Scottsdale is part of the Phoenix metro area -- that doesn't house an Apple store. Good thing, too: shoppers might get confused.

The similarities: white façade surround; large glass windows; spare modernist interior; T-shirt clad employees; stylish hardware. Even the occasional "it just works" tagline. Except for the color logo on the façade and the dark wood table tops and you could be in a Apple store.

Which is not a criticism. Apple stores are nice. Congrats to Microsoft's team for ditching the brown Zune difference-for-the-sake-of-difference impulse.

The store The store was busy at one o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. No one bothered me as I came in taking pictures.

The most striking non-Apple feature of the store is the row of thin bezel displays along each side wall. They display graphics, advertising messages and video, including some Xbox output.

Another difference: several of Microsoft's Surface computers placed around the store. These large screen touch sensitive displays are impressive for their responsiveness and ease of use. Think giant iPhone.

At the back of the store is a small theater area - just like at Apple stores. In front of that is Microsoft's version of the Genius Bar.

The goods The merchandise choices are well chosen. The slim, stylish and colorful notebooks are a welcome change from the chunky gray, heavy, notebooks on display at Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

Three rows of tables displayed hardware from Dell, HP, Sony and Lenovo. I also saw a Flip camcorder and colorful pink and red netbooks.

Colorful computer bags and accessories are displayed as well. The overall effect suggests quality, not price, drove product selection.

The help I was looking at a Sony notebook with a textured surface when a store associate asked me if I had any questions. I asked which version of Windows would he recommend I buy to run a video editing app on my Mac?

He had no idea about Mac and Windows but that he would find someone who did. The first person he asked also had no idea so they led me to a nice Answers lady.

She correctly outlined 3 ways I could run Windows on Mac. OK, and which version of Windows 7 would be appropriate for video editing?

She said Windows home basic. No extra features in the higher-end versions I'd want? No, for only running a program Windows 7 home basic is all you need. She didn't try to upsell me to a more expensive version.

A 2nd opinion A noncombatant in the computer wars thought the 2 stores looked alike, but that the Apple store had a cooler vibe - not as hard sell. After 3 can-we-help-you's at the Windows store she went to a Pottery Barn to relax.

I'd chalk it up to a brand new staff eager to prove themselves. They'll figure out what works, given time.

The Storage Bits take The first Windows retail store is an impressive effort. Sure, they stole freely from Apple, but why not? Few civilians will notice or care about the similarities - unless the stores are in close proximity.

That's when the price differences between Windows and Mac hardware will be most obvious. Stylish Macbook, $999. Stylish Sony, $799. Many a suburban breadwinner will wonder what the difference is. Apple will have to tell them.

The Windows stores are aiming at the mass-market end of the Apple demographic. Soccer moms and small business, not students and designers.

That's the core of the MS strategy: to fuzz the difference in the consumer's mind between Microsoft and Apple. Except, of course, any price difference. "We're as good as Apple, only cheaper!"

Apple is firing back. "#1 in customer satisfaction" the latest ads proclaim. They're also targeting XP users who face a tough upgrade to W7. With Grand Central Dispatch and OpenCL they're positioned for the future - as long as they can deliver obvious "wow!" to consumers.

The winners are us, the consumers. Microsoft can't illegally crush Apple the way they did Netscape 15 years ago. They have to compete on the merits. And Apple will have to work harder to tell its story.

Let the games begin!

Comments welcome, of course.

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