mirror universe

Those of you who are Star Trek fans would have felt right at home with me the other day.   I went to check out the new Microsoft store which just opened at Fashion Valley mall here in San Diego because I wanted to do a compare/contrast to the Apple store in the same mall.   My fellow fans would have felt at home in the Microsoft store not because it was a cool look at the future of culture and technology, but rather because it seemed to be the Mirror Universe.

For those of you who don’t get the TV show reference, the Mirror Universe is a parallel universe in Star Trek episodes – it’s the “what could have been” if the “what actually happened” hadn’t.  In the Mirror Universe, most of the same characters are there but they’re slightly different, whether in looks or personality.  The settings look familiar enough to cause some confusion at times, but the story lines are different enough as there’s usually more violent conflict than in the “normal” Star Trek universe.  Things are just a little off.

And that’s exactly what it felt like to be in the Microsoft store.  It was if I was in the Apple store —  but not really.  From the use of the Windows logo above the store entrance (no “Microsoft” logotype), to the big open space, to the young employees in colorful t-shirts, to the cool products displayed on tabletops, to the Answer Desk… — everything seemed oddly familiar.  I felt as if I was having a déjà vu, but then I realized that it wasn’t there at the Microsoft store that I had been before – I had been at the Apple store before.

microsoft exterior
microsoft store exterior
apple exterior
apple store exterior

I rushed over to the Apple store to make sure I wasn’t imagining things – and I did indeed find a similar store layout, similar display and visual tactics, similar employees in similar garb.  But there was one big difference – the Apple store was packed. Now that’s not to say the Microsoft store was empty – on the contrary, there were a lot of people and they seemed to be having fun browsing around and tinkering with the products.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the feeling I got there (remember, it felt like the Apple store to me!)

But in comparison, the Apple store was on fire.  I would guess there were 3 times the number of people in that store – and there was an energy, perhaps spurred by the noise volume generated from everyone talking, that made it feel like an exciting place to be.

microsoft interior
microsoft store interior
apple interior
apple store interior

I walked away from my field trip confused and disappointed.  You see, I am a Microsoft customer and someone who actually likes Power Point!  Although I admire the Apple brand for many reasons, I really want Microsoft to be successful.  It has some great products and its brand could be so much better than it is. 

The Microsoft store could have been special – but it wasn’t.  It was simply an imitation of Apple.

Microsoft missed an opportunity to do something different, to interact with customers in ways only Microsoft can, to present a unique vision of its brand:

  • Instead of putting all of its videogame products and displays in the back, why not put one of the company’s greatest strengths, XBOX, front and center?! It could have created a lot of excitement by creating an interactive gaming experience complete with real-time challenges between customers who other customers could cheer on and vote for, different pods to demonstrate the breadth of games available, special sound and lighting to add dramatic effect, etc.
  • Furthermore the company’s KINECT launch on 11.04.10 is just around the corner, so why not promote it by giving a sneak preview?!  The highly-anticipated breakthrough XBOX platform will include 15 new titles and interfaces unlike anything we’ve ever seen, including voice control and Mission-Impossible-style hand gesturing. The store should be a place where the company builds anticipation for the pending launch – and perhaps select customers might be given exclusive access to experience a taste of the interface.
  • Knowing that many of its customers are businesspeople, why not show complete home office set-ups equipped with multiple productivity tools already connected and synched?!  Or promote its enterprise solutions by using displays to tell compelling success stories?
  • To show off its software, why not have ongoing demonstrations like the ones you see at shows and conventions?! The store was clearly pushing the new Office 10 product – watching someone in a booth with a mic and an enlarged screen walking through the new software’s features and capabilities would have made me consider purchasing it more than boxes of software piled high did.
  • Why not show off Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, with a special interactive and/or live display which compares Bing results vs. Google ones?

The list of possibilities goes on.

The point is that Microsoft could have done some really special things with its store – things to leverage the unique capabilities of retail combined with the company’s unique offerings.  It could have boldly gone where no one has gone before – but instead, it chose to do the equivalent of Star Trek: Voyager.

Voyager was the last and least remarkable of television series based on the original Star Trek.  Although mildly entertaining, the show lacked imagination and failed to advance the overall Star Trek storyline in any meaningful way. And so it won’t be remembered or regarded nearly as well as its predecessor — just like the Microsoft store.

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  • Venturing boldly where shoppers have not been taken before, as you’ve suggested the Microsoft store do, requires a sort of creativity that’s in Apple’s DNA more than in Microsoft’s. Reading your post reminded me of a study done a few years ago at Duke University. Participants exposed to the Apple logo performed better on a set of creativity tasks than did an equivalent set of participants exposed to the IBM logo. The findings were published under the title “How Apple Makes You ‘Think Different’.”

  • woohoo.

    a lot of this is already done….they ARE demoing kinect; theyve been doing so for about 2 weeks now. there are free classes that occur four to five times a day demoing new office, windows 7. windows live, etc. there is a home office setup, fully loaded with windows 7 professional, and a seagate external harddrive, hooked up to 2 monitors for business people. I also feel that if xbox were right up front, people would assume it was a gaming store.

  • Mark T

    I was in the store on Saturday and have described it since as Apple with more wood tones.

    As customer experience design is part of my work I asked a staff member about what they were hoping to achieve and how they were different from the Apple Store. All I got was that the store was (paraphrasing here) “an opportunity to give MSFT as public face as it is softwarr company that traditionally relied on other outlets (retailers, hardward manufacturers) to sell its products.

    Yes Kinect is being demoed (way in the back) and there are classes, but overall the extent to which the Microsoft Store is a facisimle of the Apple Store was quite shocking.

  • Thanks everyone for the comments.

    In response to the commenter named “woohoo” and the PR person who emailed me with counterpoints to my specific suggestions, my overall point remains. My suggestions may or may not have merit but the bigger issue is that Microsoft simply imitated Apple and did not break new ground with its store.

    Plus, details are important — for example, classes aren’t the same thing as ongoing demos (the former requires the customer to be interested in the product enough to schedule their lives around Microsoft; the latter would pique people’s curiosity as they’re browsing and encourage them to seek out more information).