Laugh all you want, but the Microsoft Store could be great

So Microsoft is going to have themselves a little retail space. This is, of course, ripe for mockery, and I’m sure tomorrow will bring the fruits of photoshop contests from around the web. Will it be wall-to-wall Vista boxes? Will you have to sign a license agreement to get in? Will they avoid the color “BSOD blue”? All very funny questions, but the fact is that Microsoft’s stores could be the beginning of… well, another beginning for the oft-maligned software baron. After all, despite what the web has to say, they do manufacture more than error screens.

What have they even done to put themselves out there lately? Their silly booths were too passive, Mojave was too obscure, and “I’m a PC” was capitulation, pure and simple. And while they’re dabbling in this and that, their entire media image is being created out of whole cloth by their competitors. They need a main event, not a sideshow.

The obvious yardstick here is the Apple Store. The Apple Store (like pretty much every store) provides a place where the purveyor can show the consumer what their product looks like ideally. The computers all work, they’re all up to date, they have pro applications installed, and a bunch of compatible media and accessories are lying at hand, giving the illusion that all is right in Apple’s little world. It says to you, “Your life can be like this store.” It’s not original, and it’s not terribly hard to do — IKEA does it right (perfectly assembled furniture, perfectly arranged), so does Tiffany’s (perfectly maintained jewelry, perfectly displayed). All Microsoft has to do is replicate this kind of environment, although their retail branding and packaging in the past do suggest we exercise optimism with a measure of caution.

So what would be in there? Vista, of course, all dressed up — although if they’re smart they’d have 7 around as well and push the buy-now-upgrade-free idea. Load it up with Live stuff, programs and services nobody’s heard of from Microsoft Research, and so on. Microsoft hardware puts out some solid stuff, so they can have the place stocked with their latest wireless keyboards and Bluetrack mice. They can have Zunes stocked with music (how many people have actually touched one?) and Zune clients open on Surface Tables with all the Live connections that come with. Maybe a gaming rig with the new Sidewinder gear. Having these actually cool shirts there wouldn’t hurt.

They mustn’t push too hard, though; the idea they’ve been trying to put out forever is that Microsoft products are just as approachable, just as intuitive as the other guy’s. So Microsoft needs to set it up right and let it ride. If you build it, they will come… eventually.

With a little work, they can provide the kind of ideal hands-on experience that Apple Stores famously give (and which is famously effective), although I think they can do without the tiringly obsequious employees. They have the hardware, they have the software, but what remains to be seen is whether they have the sense to do this thing right.