In Search of Microsoft Geniuses

Why the software giant should copy the Apple Store.

Last week, Microsoft announced it had hired David Porter, a former executive at DreamWorks and Wal-Mart, to lead its new retail division. It took about five seconds for the jeers to begin. Wait, Microsoft is opening its own stores? Seriously? Retail stinks; nearly every company on Earth is looking for places to trim, not to open more outlets. And then there’s the fact that, once again, Microsoft is ripping off Apple. After the spectacular failure of the Zune, shouldn’t they reconsider carbon-copying as a viable business plan?

But let the critics carp. Microsoft’s plan is smart. Though the company hasn’t settled on the details of its strategy—Porter is charged with deciding when, where, and how to launch the retail operation—opening up a chain of shops could revitalize the firm’s battered image. Microsoft has a problem: Everyone in the world uses its products, but few of us appreciate them. We linger on the difficulties—how much of a hassle it is to connect a printer to Windows Vista—and we forget about everything it does well. Excel is a pretty great spreadsheet program, isn’t it? And Windows Vista does have a nice photo-management app, right?

These sound like small pleasures, but so what? Apple’s retail operation is built on such trifles—one display shows you how easy it is to manage music on your Mac while another shows you all the useful programs you can download on your iPhone. With the help of a well-trained, enthusiastic staff, these demos add up to something sublime—walk through an Apple store and you’re bowled over by elegant simplicity. Apple’s stores reintroduced a generation of jaded Radio Shack and Circuit City shoppers to all that’s pleasurable about technology.

The world’s largest software company needs some of that retail magic in the worst way. Microsoft has lately been pushing the idea that many of its troubles stem from a misunderstanding—that its customers simply don’t realize how awesome its products are. Last year’s strange Windows “Mojave” ad campaign argued that people would love Windows Vista if only they could be tricked into trying it out. This was laughable; customers who adopted the latest version of Windows were plagued by real difficulties: It didn’t work with a lot of their hardware and software, it kept bothering them about security violations, and it hogged their system’s resources. But Microsoft has since fixed many of those issues, and its upcoming Windows 7 looks to be a wonderful OS. What Microsoft needs now is a way to get that message across—and without coming off as needy and defensive. A chain of retail stores is an expensive way to reintroduce your wares to customers. But if the stores are well-designed, they’ll be much more effective than commercials.

Let me be clear about what I mean by “if the stores are well-designed”: Microsoft ought to copy Apple. And I mean a straight-up facsimile—copy it relentlessly, unabashedly, and completely. (Some might say this has never been a problem for the software giant.) There are a few successful ways to run stores devoted to technology, and there are many unsuccessful ways. Microsoft has already sunk money into a failure: In 1999, the company opened microsoftSF, a retail location in San Francisco’s Metreon shopping mall. The store, which had the sleek design of a modern-art-museum shop, was filled with interactive displays, Microsoft knickknacks (clothes, hats), and boxes of software. What it lacked was personality—especially a gregarious, knowledgeable band of employees to help customers learn about the company’s products. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the store closed down just two years after its debut.

Microsoft built that store in conjunction with Sony, which runs a few dozen retail locations of its own around the country. The Sony shops suffer from the same problem as Microsoft’s early venture. Though they’re very pretty and stocked with all kinds of wonderful goodies, the Sony stores are unbelievably boring. They fetishize technology; everything is arranged just so, and you’re reluctant to play with the stuff for fear that you might disrupt a gleaming display. The stores are overly big, too, with the staff spread out in far-flung corners, never around to help you when you’ve got a question. It’s been a long while since I ventured into one of these shops, and I have no regrets. Not once have I thought, Hey, I need a new laptop—let me pop in to SonyStyle to see what they’ve got.

Apple launched its stores in part because it lacked control over how its products were presented by other retailers. CEO Steve Jobs argued that staff at big-box operations couldn’t explain what was special about the company’s stuff. And though Apple had a great online store, Jobs believed that shopping on the Web wasn’t very satisfying. “When I bring something home to the kids, I want to get the smile. I don’t want the UPS guy to get the smile,” he once told a retail trade magazine.

But Apple’s stores—there are now 251 locations around the world, and the company plans to open 25 more during the current fiscal year—are much more than a mere distribution channel. For committed Apple fans, the stores function as a local center of fandom—a place to get the first peek at the new MacBook Air or iPod Nano. For less obsessive owners, the chain is a handy place to get help—you can pop over to buy a new set of headphones or to ask how to sync your iPhone with Google Calendar. And for the uninitiated, the stores are a friendly invitation to the cult. Here’s a place to play around with everything before you buy, a place where you can be sure someone who knows what he’s talking about will be answering your questions. The store also stands as a promise of future help—you’re spending a few hundred dollars more on that laptop than you really wanted to, but at least you can take comfort in the fact that you can bring it back when the battery stops working.

There are two parts of the Apple retail strategy that Microsoft would be wise to replicate: the hiring process and the Genius Bars. Every Apple Store employee I’ve ever met has at least acted as if she loved to work there. The staff never tries to pressure you into buying stuff you don’t need, and, unlike the blue-shirted guys at Best Buy, rarely lapses into tech jargon. The store especially excels when something goes wrong with something you’ve bought. When your iPhone keeps crashing or your MacBook won’t connect to the Web, just go online to make an appointment at the Genius Bar (if you don’t make an appointment, you might have to wait in a long line). If they can fix the item for you in the store, they’ll do it—usually for free, often while you wait. I’ve visited the Genius Bar about half a dozen times, and I’ve always come away impressed. Last year, I went in with a comatose six-month-old iPhone. The fix was easy: They gave me a new phone. Another time, I went in with an old PowerBook with a broken screen. Another easy fix: The resident Genius backed up my data while I waited then sent the machine back to Apple for repairs. A week later, my system was fixed. I had to pay for the backup drive, but because the machine was still under warranty, everything else was free.

True, it’ll be tougher to find Windows Geniuses than Mac Geniuses. Because Apple makes its own hardware and software, experts have to know about only a handful of different configurations. Windows machines, by contrast, are made by lots of different computer companies and can include a much wider range of peripherals. Still, there are many kinds of computer problems that a skilled expert could solve regardless of your hardware—for instance, a Windows Genius could help you get your computer to recognize your wireless router, show you how to back up your files, and teach you how to avoid getting infected by malware. The Microsoft stores might also cut down on tech problems by selling a small range of specially designed PC systems, machines that would come with an Apple-like promise of free tech support for life. Indeed, this would neatly solve Microsoft’s perennial problem—the perception that Windows computers are cheap and prone to failure. Would you pay a $200 premium for a laptop if you could be sure there’d be someone to help you when you run into problems? Apple has proved that lots of people will.