In addition to making highly usable and coveted consumer electronics, one of the keys to Apple's success has been its physical stores. At any Apple Store, you can not only get the tangible experience of any of the full line of devices, but you have the option of making an appointment to get help with a device you've already purchased. Roving salespeople with handheld cash registers circulate to answer new product questions, all of which creates the experience of a high-tech shopping atmosphere.
With the recent announcement that it will open two new permanent stores -- one in Honolulu and one in Detroit -- it seems apparent that Microsoft is looking to capitalize on the Apple model. These locations will join some of the holiday locations that sprang up to push the company's then recently released Surface tablet. Many of these locations are being converted into permanent spots, and the company is already hiring for various critical roles within each location.
What the ultimate success or failure of Microsoft's foray into the retail hardware space turns on is the quality of the products that adorn its stores. The Apple Store may be a cool place to shop, but if they weren't selling a better widget, it would all be for naught -- it doesn't take a genius, or even an Apple Genius, to figure that out. You come to see the cool new toys the company is making and buy because the store is well executed.
The Surface Pro is coming
Set to be released this weekend, the critical product that will draw consumers to Microsoft stores -- or not -- is the new Surface Pro tablet. While similar to the original Surface RT released last fall, this version is capable of running a full version of Windows and is offered as a legitimate replacement for both your laptop and your tablet. Initial reviews have been mixed at best, but when you look a little deeper, certain critical details begin to emerge that shouldn't be overlooked.
The initial reviews of the Surface Pro have been somewhere between lukewarm and negative. While the device was praised for its solid construction and high-resolution screen, there is a list of negatives that come along with the pros. Some of the top complaints include the fact that the Surface Pro is expensive, that it's very weak on battery life, and that, as what The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg calls a "tweener," the device is neither a great tablet nor a great laptop. Mossberg argues that the device is really too heavy to be great as a tablet and that the kickstand setup doesn't lend itself well to being used on your lap.
Other pros of the device include its ability to run a full version of Microsoft Office, as well as any of the 4 million Windows programs out there -- a first for a device in the tablet form factor. David Pogue of The New York Times, who is one of the more positive reviewers, said: "The Surface Pro is an important idea, almost a new category, and it will be the right machine for a lot of people. It strikes a spot on the size/weight/speed/software spectrum that no machine has ever struck."
Embodied in that insight is a point that I think most reviewers largely overlook: The device is arguably more important as an idea than as a piece of hardware. It should come as no surprise that a piece of equipment that's trying to take the place of two other devices won't be quite as good at the tasks that either perform -- the specialized versions aren't constrained by needing to serve two purposes. That doesn't mean, however, that being the first to market with a new concept isn't exactly where Microsoft -- and Microsoft investors -- want to be.
Take, for example, the portable GPS device. While a standalone version almost certainly works better and is easier to use than the version embedded in your smartphone, the GPS function has become so crucial to a smartphone that Apple's misstep led to "Mapgate." Recognizing that the map feature is important for more than simple navigation, the point is that even with reduced functionality, the feature is going strong. I believe the same can be applied to the hybrid idea of a laptop-tablet.
Why stores matter
Given the newness of the idea, therefore, it is even more critical that Microsoft provide customers with a tangible experience to evaluate its concept. Particularly at the $899 to $999 (and up) price points, you're going to want to try it out before spending that kind of money. The online shopper is more likely to opt for something cheaper in case the reality doesn't live up to the hype. And as Windows 8 is an important departure from previous iterations of the OS, giving people a place to be educated could make a real difference. Microsoft's efforts in this department are a great sign, and while they are unlikely to perfectly duplicate the Apple Store, they provide a positive catalyst to buy the stock.