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Microsoft to open retail stores. Yeah, good luck with that

Buried in a late-in-the-day press release announcing a new executive, Microsoft revealed plans to open branded retail stores as part of its effort to raise awareness surrounding Windows 7, Windows Mobile and Windows Live.The time frame for opening the stores, as well as locations, will be the first order of business for David Porter, the company's new corporate vice president of Retail Stores, who was a 25-year Wal-Mart executive before his most recent stint with DreamWorks Animation SKG.

Buried in a late-in-the-day press release announcing a new executive, Microsoft revealed plans to open branded retail stores as part of its effort to raise awareness surrounding Windows 7, Windows Mobile and Windows Live.

The time frame for opening the stores, as well as locations, will be the first order of business for David Porter, the company's new corporate vice president of Retail Stores, who was a 25-year Wal-Mart executive before his most recent stint with DreamWorks Animation SKG.

OK, I can understand Microsoft taking a tip from Apple, which has seen success by putting their products - from iMacs to iPods - on display for customers to test drive at Apple-branded retails outlets. I can even understand Microsoft wanting a presence in communities - and what better place than retail centers - so people can familiarize themselves with the products. (Isn't that kind of what Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld were talking about during the second of two really bad commercials last year?)

Also see: Mary Jo Foley: Microsoft to follow Apple with its own family of retail stores

In a release, the company said, "The purpose of opening these stores is to create deeper engagement with consumers and continue to learn firsthand about what they want and how they buy." So is the retail store plan an opportunity for Microsoft to learn more about the customer or the customer to learn more about Microsoft? Either way, the intention is a good one.

But retail stores? What will they sell? Boxed software? Xbox? Zune? The stuff that Microsoft wants you to know more about - Windows 7, Windows Mobile and Windows Live - aren't products that you would buy at a Microsoft store. Windows 7 is an operating system that will come on a computer you buy from Dell, HP or someone else. Windows Mobile is a operating system that comes on a mobile phone made by companies like Motorola and sold via wireless carriers. And Windows Live is, well, on the Internet. In a statement, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner said:

We’re also working hard to transform the PC and Microsoft buying experience at retail by improving the articulation and demonstration of the Microsoft innovation and value proposition so that it’s clear, simple and straightforward for consumers everywhere. David (Porter’s) unique and diverse background, coupled with his deep retail roots and distribution understanding, will be an invaluable asset in this long-term effort.

One might argue that Apple has done very well for itself with retail stores. But much of that success is due to the instant gratification that comes with walking out of the store with an iPod or Macbook in-hand.

The other side of the argument, of course, is Gateway. The once-strong PC maker, which is now part of Acer, tried desperately to make a retail store work years ago. It added training classes, a service department and even made room on its shelves for other electronics devices that interacted with a PC - such as mp3 players and digital cameras. But nothing paid off. I don't know if Microsoft - which really has no brand cachet for physical products other than Xbox (and maybe Zune, too) - can pull off a retail model any better than Gateway.

I certainly don't think it can emulate Apple's success.