In a move that shocked only those people who haven't operated a personal computer in 20 years, Microsoft recently announced that they'd be "lightly borrowing" the Mac Store concept by launching their own chain of trendy mall-bound retail boutiques. They hope this will give them a more direct line of communication with their consumers, create a concrete relationship with the public and provide opportunities for public relations interface and a slick, coherent new image. You know, all the things it did for Apple.
But in case any Microsoft executives read this blog, I feel it's my duty to inform them of two facts.
1. It won't.
2. That's okay.
Let’s back up. I think the best way to explain why the Microsoft stores are going to be a laughable failure is to answer the age-old debate between PCs and Macs. And here’s the answer, as disappointing as frothing fanboys may find it: they’re just different. Both have a place in the market, and they'll make money as long as they stick to their rightful domain.
Macintosh is elitist. That’s its thing. That elitism may come in the form of family-friendly machines with bright colors and giant buttons, but it’s still an elitism, simply because of the level of image involved. Buying a Mac has become “a lifestyle choice,” from the Apple sticker on the rear window of your Prius to the black turtleneck guarding you against the fog of a Northern California morning.
And that elitism is built right into the machine. Apple’s slogan is “It just works,” but it could as well be “Hopefully it just works, because if it doesn’t you don’t have a lot of options.” They’ve gotten better since the Linux makeover but, by and large, if my Mac breaks down, I tend to just drop it from my balcony and order another.
The point is, Macintosh doesn’t have time to let you fiddle around with their insides; they’re too busy
innovating. Also making out with Pixar.
Meanwhile, Microsoft represents the ultimate in computing populism. Buying a PC and loading up Windows says nothing whatsoever about your lifestyle beyond “I live and work in the 21st century.”
And by not cultivating any sort of coherent image, and copying other companies’ innovations with a ruthless efficiency that would make Edison proud, Microsoft has saved time better spent haphazardly licensing third-party companies to make their products and patching the shit out of their buggy software.
There’s a lot more to be said about how that’s only an oversimplification and how this one guy totally overclocked his G5 and it has a steampunk brass casing and meanwhile this other guy super-glued his PC case shut and was like “what?”, but the history of the two companies bears out that when they stick to their respective domains, there’s plenty of money to go around for both.
When Mac tried to copy Microsoft for a change and license their OS to third-party companies (yes, that happened), they nearly went bankrupt. That’s when Steve Jobs came back, put “i” in front of everything and made them trendier and more exclusive than ever.
Part of that process was opening an upscale boutique, part of it was innovating the shit out of some stuff (mp3 players, phones, what have yous), and part of it was developing the mythos that at the Mac offices, everyone rides razor scooters around with the Incredible family and somehow this updates Jaguar.
And guess what? Times are good again in the land of Mac.
But this strategy just won’t work for the PC, and to convince you of that (let’s be honest; I’m talking to you, Bill), here are a list of key changes Microsoft will have to incorporate into their storefront to stay true to the Windows image if they want to compete with the Mac stores.
Mac Store: Large windows that remind you of nothing so much as a high-end Manhattan fashion boutique house oversized white posters featuring designer-colored boxes of digital wonder. You aren’t sure how they work, but you know they’re everything you need to make your life whole again.
Microsoft Store: The storefront seems to be constructed out of unopened Windows, Vista boxes mortared together and, as you watch, employees rotate the featured products just in time for the new ones to become obsolete.
Mac Store: Eight products sit on a glossy table. You have plenty of time to play with each, developing brief but significant relationships while you wait for your lunch break from the Sbarro’s to end.
Microsoft Store: A sprawling labyrinth of thousands of products threaten to topple from perches dozens of feet overhead. You jog through quadrants 1-6, scanning desperately for the tiny widget you need to fix your computer, but can find only slightly different versions of it. The helpful in-store map kiosk seems to be busy self-updating, so you blunder ahead aimlessly into the dark of another aisle. Then the Minotaur is upon you.
Mac Store: A concierge will set up an appointment for you at the Genius Bar, where a 21-year-old with a lip piercing will take you on a journey of self-discovery and wonder, leading you down a dock of dreams and imparting upon you the wisdom of the ages. If your Applecare is still active, that is. If it’s not, you’re basically fucked. Also, sometimes the term “Genius” seems to be applied sarcastically.
Microsoft Store: A blind guide will lead you down a winding stone staircase and into the Geek Pit, where a gaggle of hissing men in tucked-in dressed shirts and jeans will wipe Cheetos off their hands, then paw over your computer and tell you how you could totally “up your modifier” by throwing a second processor in there, picking up some fans, and maybe RAIDing the internals. There’s also a guy biting the heads off chickens, but that was part of a misunderstanding at the employment office.
Mac Store: You leave the store feeling hipper than you have all week, and breathe a sigh of deep contentment as you pop your earbuds in and rock some U2 all the way to a Starbucks latte.
Microsoft Store: As you re-emerge, staggering and dazed by the unfamiliar light of the sun, you turn back one last time, reveling in your survival. So basically, the same as when you leave a Fry’s.
See? All you’ve really got going for you is the games thing and, frankly, paying for a series of giant warehouses and staff just to sell games you don’t own the rights to isn’t going to pay the mortgage on your hollowed out mountain.
If you absolutely must have a retail chain, you’ve got to pare down, stick to your strengths. I guess what I’m saying is, open an arcade. Now there’s a business model that’s timely as ever. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Fallout 3 to play on my Virtual PC.
When not livin' it up 80s style, Michael serves as head writer for and co-founder of Those Aren't Muskets!