MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

Summary: Ten years ago I went into a Microsoft Store.It was a wide open modern space, with wooden floors and low tables showcasing Microsoft products.

TOPICS: Windows

Ten years ago I went into a Microsoft Store.

It was a wide open modern space, with wooden floors and low tables showcasing Microsoft products.

Last week we visited the two new Microsoft Stores.

They were wide open modern spaces, with wooden floors and low tables showcasing Microsoft products.

Should we be surprised by the similarity? Not really, as there aren’t really that many different ways of selling hardware and software. It needs to be accessible, easy to demonstrate, and with enough space for a family to look at the hardware and software they’re buying. An Apple Store is much like a PC World, and a Microsoft Store is much like a Sony store.

A roadtrip across the South West US took us between LA and Arizona, and we took the opportunity to check out Microsoft's new retail venture. After all, we'd done something similar for the first couple of Apple stores, so it only seemed fair.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the original microsoftSF in San Francisco’s Metreon complex and the two new stores in Mission Viejo and Scottsdale is the hardware. Microsoft is now selling PCs, not just software and peripherals. That’s because in the last ten years, the computer has become the experience – and the PC experience hasn’t been the best.

That’s changing, with new hardware and new software, and also with what Microsoft is using its stores to pioneer – its own install images. If you buy a PC in a Microsoft Store it’ll have the same basic software image, whether it’s HP, Lenovo, or Sony. That means there’s no crapware clogging up the bootpath, no applications asking for registrations (and for cash) when you start up for the first time. It’s why most IT professionals don’t even bother to run the default installs on their home PCs, they just install a clean OS from scratch.

Microsoft has finally realised just how much damage bundled software is doing to the PC ecosystem – and to its own image. It’s impossible for Microsoft to force OEMs to stop installing crapware (after all, it’s a revenue stream for those companies), and if it did, the combined anti-trust forces of the world would come down on Redmond like the proverbial ton of bricks. There is a simple answer – led by example. Showing consumers just how much simpler and easier a boot is on a clean image, especially on common PCs sold in many different outlets, stands a greater chance of changing OEM behaviours than any other means.

That clean image approach is also why Microsoft handed out several thousand laptops to attendees of its Professional Developers Conference. Getting clean, well configured hardware in the hands of engineers will help develop a clean boot culture.

The Microsoft stores aren’t about selling PCs and software – they’re about changing perceptions. And if consumers get a better PC as a result, that’s all to the good.


Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    Does this mean that MS charges more for PCs from its own store than identical models from other vendors, then? As you say, "crapware" is a revenue stream for OEMs, and that means that OEMs can subsidise the prices of their PCs accordingly. So unless the MS stores are able (somehow) to sell Windows at an exclusive discount, surely the lack of a "crapware" subsidy would force up their PCs' sale price?
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    No, the prices we saw are comparable to PC prices elsewhere in US stores. How can that be? Microsoft might be choosing to get a slightly lower margin than the PC manufacturers to sell a PC with an experience that will stop PC users switching to Mac - a big part of what the stores are for at this point is user experience and marketing. If Microsoft can sell you the same PC you could get at Best Buy at the same price but with a boot time that's 30 seconds less and a longer battery life, you're more likely to be happy with Windows and maybe even complain about a PC that comes loaded with crapware. The software loading bonus is a bonus: take it away and the PC makers will still make a profit - it's not like they're selling at cost. And if the Microsoft stores put a dent in OEM sales, it might make them offer unloaded PCs with better tuned images. After designing the PDC PC, the Windows team should have a better understanding of what they need to give the PC makers to achieve that.
    - Mary
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    "Microsoft might be choosing to get a slightly lower margin than the PC manufacturers"

    If that's code for "selling Windows at a discount" (Where else could that "slightly lower margin" come from? MS has to buy the same PC hardware as everyone else.) then I see more anti-trust in MS's future.

    PC makers couldn't stay in business if they were forced to sell "at cost", and the last time I heard, their margins were already thin. Take the "crapware" revenue away and their prices will go up.
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    Margins on PCs certainly aren't in the 20+% region like Apple gets on Macs but what you need to compare is not Dell or HP, it's Best Buy or Dixons. MS is not manufacturing PCs, it is having an optimised, custom image put on PCs from Dell, HP et al. I'm not being intentionally cryptic: if MS is getting a lower margin on the sale it would be because the PC maker is not getting the extra money from crapware. I'm speculating that MS might find a lower margin acceptable because of other benefits not about direct margin. Anti-trust issues are not about a company choosing to make less profit: they're about a dominant company using their position monopolistically - and if there's a single dominant company in PC retail, I'm not sure who that would be.
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    There is also anti-competitive behaviour, if the MS store can accept a margin that would put other PC retailers out of business. I'm sure that retailers don't put "crapware" on their PCs for fun, but because they need to do it in order to compete on price with everyone else.

    And suddenly, MS is apparently matching that price *without* the "crapware". Hmmm.....
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    they don't put it on for fun; they put it on for profit. Occasionally, they realise - as with the Dell Vostro - it's counterproductive and offer customers the option not to have it. 'Everyone else is doing it' hasn't been a good excuse since before I was in primary school...
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    Please don't patronise me, Mary. I explicitly stated that

    "they need to do it in order to compete on price with everyone else"

    If you choose to interpret that as a childish "Everyone else is doing it" then you appear to be deliberately ignoring my point, and quite rudely at that.

    I'll spell it out for you: I'm not saying that "crapware" is a Good Thing, I am pointing out the implications of the "crapware economy". Which means that Dell offering no "crapware" on the Vostro (link, please?) isn't important: what matters are *the terms and conditions* of Dell's offer! Does it cost you extra? Is it available for a limited time only? Is it *only* available on the Vostro line? Any one of these would indicate that Dell is not turning its back on "crapware" at all.

    And my main point: if the MS Stores are selling PCs without "crapware" at the same price as other retailers are selling the same models with "crapware" then I am curious to know how they do it. If they're getting Windows at a discount or getting subsidised by "The Mothership" (arguably the same thing) then I would cry "foul".
  • MS Store Trek: The Next Generation

    It's not so much getting rid of the additional software that's been installed on PCs, it's more getting it out of the boot path and out of the first start-up process.

    Most of the machines at the Microsoft Store have all the software that normally comes bundled - it's just not running at startup. There's a lot of work going on here - OEMs know that it has a negative effect on the user experience, and some, like Sony and Lenovo, have been working to move it out of the Windows start up into the Windows 7 DeviceStage. It's really something that could only be done with Windows 7, as it's the first version of Windows that gives OEMs and other hardware vendors a direct channel to the end user.

    What's happening with the system images at the Microsoft stores is a collaboration, not a Microsoft replacement for the standard retail installs. Think of it as a lab for trying out new ways of bundling software with PCs, that's now market testing in two locations.

    If the experiment means lower margins for Microsoft, they're something it can make up for by selling their software directly rather than through other retailers. I strongly suspect there's a lot more to be made selling game store quantities of Call of Duty for the Xbox than a handful of laptops or desktops.

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe