Why the Microsoft store isn't like the Apple store

It's easy to think that Microsoft stores are mere copies of Apple stores. But a visit to a newly-opened store shows that there are differences. You just have to be open to them.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read
So colorful. Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Like any tasteful, sentient being, I follow in the footsteps of Kelly Clarkson.

Yesterday, she was in Corte Madera, Calif., opening her throat to celebrate the opening of a Microsoft store.

So this morning, I wandered along to see whether there would still be a hullabaloo.

Because Microsoft is in cheery assault mode, it has placed the store around 110 steps away from an Apple store. This isn't throwing down a gauntlet. It's positively sticking one's tongue out.

Indeed, mere feet from the Apple store was a member of Microsoft's army, giving away t-shirts.

Outside the Microsoft store was a commotion and a line. Did Microsoft really have to mimic the Apple store so closely?

This has been perhaps the biggest criticisms of its design. Not the line, but the glass and the general sleekness.

And yet my colleague Jim Kerstetter was surprised to find a Microsoft store impressive.

Still, I was prepared to be deflated -- especially on a Sunday.

A very nice man greeted me outside the door and asked me to play with him. Which I thought an extremely Californian invitation. In California, we play and ask questions later.

Sunday School. Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

What he wanted to play was the Bing It On challenge -- the one where you try the same search on Google and Bing and see whose is better.

Again, in my case, Google won. Baldrick -- let's call him that -- was not too disappointed. He showed off the Surface it was  played on. He still gave me a $25 gift certificate and was pleasantly chatty.

When I suggested that the outside of the store did look more than a little like an Apple store, he said: "Well, they got the same people to design it. They did the Gap store too."

He then admitted he used to work for Apple at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters and found it "dead." Well, there are certainly a couple of bodies there after this week.

Baldrick suggested I look around the store, where I was immediately pounced upon by young men,  a vast platoon of Baldrick's friends in bright, vibrant t-shirts.

"Our cult is fresher, more cheery, more naively optimistic," they seemed to be saying. Could this be change I could believe in?

The most heartening evidence of this cheeriness comes in the color. There were Surfaces laid out on quite a few surfaces and most had bright keyboards to match the general atmosphere.

Like the managers of a restaurant's first night, they hustled me into a seat in front of a keyboard before I'd even had time to look at the menu.

They called over an expert, who was so ridiculously nice that I wanted to tip him. However, he did commit a slight faux pas.

When I told him I thought the Surface's bright pink keyboard might take some getting used to, he immediately capitulated and brought over an ugly black ordinary-looking thing that was more like a traditional keyboard.

But I wasn't even being critical. Many good things take a little getting used to. His eagerness to please had run away with him. He even admitted that some people didn't like the original version of the Surface keyboard.

For me, I merely found it hard to locate the space bar, because there sort of isn't one. You just press where the space bar should be.

Then I picked it up and suggested it was a little heavy. Again, this could have been interpreted as a compliment. This little pink number was quite substantial when you got to know it.

But, no.

Adderall, as I'll call him, immediately interrupted: "It's light."

"It's heavy," I repeated.

"It's light," he insisted.

I thanked him lightly and politely, and continued to wander around. Another proselyte immediately took me by the arm -- no, really -- and tried to drag me to a Windows 8 demonstration.

I sometimes have the patience of Louis CK. This was not a good move. He seemed to understand through his disappointment.

But there were several more times that my arm was touched by enthusiastic young people wanting to talk and show and enthuse and delight and be breathless, as well as cuddly.

For all this touchy-feely, the truth is that Microsoft needs a few more products like the Surface -- products that are different and colorful. Products that can represent competition through inspiration, rather than mimicry.

That way, the store will begin to resemble something more different, more colorful rather than just a little. It's not merely the problem of a brand that got left behind, but the problem of physical retail.

When was the last time you saw something truly inspiring in the mall? I put it to you that the most original retail store is Abercrombie with the topless boys outside and the heart of darkness inside.

What does that tell you?

I wandered back past the Apple store. It was as full as a bar offering free unlimited shots.

Yet there was a contrast. All the staff had merely blue t-shirts. Most of the products were devoid of anything but muted colors. Well, it's a brand that came out of the pot era. Microsoft is now trying to bring back a more LSD feeling for a new generation.

There'll come a time -- possibly soon -- when all Apple's monochrome will seem as dull as dad's Levi's. But Microsoft has to get people to believe in its color.

I hadn't looked at the Microsoft t-shirt I'd been given. All I knew was that it was black, which is a pity.

As I walked back to my car, I unfurled it.

"I'm a PC," it read.

Oh, come on. The PC era is over, remember? Give me something that looks to the future. Give me color.

It's so hard to get every detail right, isn't it?