Last Sunday afternoon, I found myself, somewhat unexpectedly, in a Microsoft retail store.
The Microsoft store — in a northern California outdoor mall — was not the dour, uninspiring hellscape I'd expected to find selling Windows gadgets and touting the merits of Internet Explorer. Outside, it was colorful and inviting. Inside, it was brightly lit, well-designed, and crowded with happy masses eagerly scooping up Surface tablets and Asus laptops. Employees were smiling and helpful; children were joyfully playing Xbox in the corner. A dad sat down with his young daughter in front of a Surface demo tablet, and smiled as she played a game and giggled. It was weird, disorienting, and pretty great.
I revisited the store yesterday, in order to make sure I hadn't hallucinated the entire episode.
After all, I, like all sentient humans, have watched Microsoft flounder in mediocrity for the last decade or so while Apple became the de facto tech provider of educated yuppies everywhere. I am no exception; I own an iPad, an iPhone, a MacBook, and I use an iMac at work. I haven't bought — or even considered buying, really — any products made by Microsoft in the last decade. And until my visit to the Microsoft store, I'd assumed the company was going the way of BlackBerry — fading into irrelevance among all but the most hard-core business users, trampled out of existence by more highly evolved product lines.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my confirmation bias: Microsoft’s store impressed the hell out of me.
My employee tagalong on my return visit was Daniel, a youngish nerd in a green shirt who has worked for Microsoft since October. He told me that Microsoft has been deliberately opening up stores next to existing Apple stores — like at this mall, where the nearest Apple store was roughly 200 feet away — in order to present itself as an either-or competitor.
“We’ve had a lot of converts,” he said.
Daniel said the store had been rather sleepy until the Surface came out earlier this year. Now, he says, it's a madhouse. (My return visit was on a weekday at around 2 p.m., so the store was only a quarter full.)
"We're completely sold out of the 128-gig version," he said. "I can't even count how many we've sold. People love these things."
Even though Daniel didn't know I was a journalist, it's not unusual to hear a retail employee talking up sales. The difference is that Daniel seemed genuinely shocked — as if even he hadn't expected anyone to fall for Microsoft's strategy.
And certainly, not everyone has. Last year, Marco Arment wrote in detail about how pathetic and off-putting he found his local Microsoft store. And Arment's right that Microsoft stores are, in large part, design homages to Apple stores. There are the long wooden tables filled with demo gadgets, the walls of accessories, and the employees in jeans and nametags. If you've spent any time at all inside an Apple store, nothing about Microsoft's retail design will shock you.
Like Arment, I am Apple-inclined and skeptical of copycats. But the Microsoft store I visited was considerably more pleasant than any Apple store I've ever visited. The sales team was patient and not at all pushy, and the atmosphere was more relaxed. An employee offered me a Diet Coke while I browsed. Maybe the company took Arment's review to heart and ironed out some of the kinks. Or maybe it looks less sad now that the Surface has been released and there is a marquee product on tables. Either way, it's clear that some corner has been turned. While sitting there, testing out various tablets and Windows phones, I felt my emotional attachment to Apple loosening. My iPad has been pretty slow and clunky lately, I thought. Maybe there is something better out there.
I don't think it's just me. The Surface Pro has been selling out around the country, and while Microsoft won't release specific numbers, it's safe to say that Microsoft hasn't had as much initial interest in a piece of hardware since the Xbox 360. Some of those sales are no doubt being made to the company's herd of loyalists, but more than a few people who switched over to Apple devices years ago must be switching back as well.
After leaving, I went to the Apple store down the street. It was packed — with roughly twice as many customers as Microsoft's store — and it felt a bit like a supermarket. The lights were fluorescent and unkind, the concrete floor was dirty, the music was loud, the employees were rushing around, trying frantically to keep pace with the customers begging them for help. One lady was half-yelling at a Genius Bar worker about her broken iPad; some customer's cocker spaniel was roaming around the store. Nobody looked happy. The overall effect was less like taking Prozac, as Apple CEO Tim Cook claimed, and more like being on MDMA at a sad rave.
Perhaps this is the curse of dominance. When you're as big and hegemonic as Apple, when your supply chain is a front-page Times series and your CEO gets to sit next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union, it's that much harder to maintain a sense of joy and surprise. It's no longer thrilling to find a functional, well-designed gadget in an Apple store — greatness is what you expect.
Nobody expects Microsoft to be great anymore, which is precisely why I think its new stores are endearing. Unlike BlackBerry, which has resorted to hiring celebrity spokespeople in an attempt to regain relevance, Microsoft is just making solid products, putting them in attractive retail outlets, then placing those stores next to Apple stores and letting customers choose. I have no idea whether these stores are profitable, or how they will fare as financial investments. All I know is that they are reasonably enjoyable places to shop for computers, and that a visit to one made me feel something akin to affection for Microsoft for the first time in a decade.
In all, Microsoft's retail strategy strikes me as infinitely smarter than its "I'm a PC" counter-campaigns of yore. It feels less desperate and more genuine than attacking Apple's image as the computer for cool kids. And who knows? It might even inspire me to buy something next time.