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Yes, a Microsoft Store wows a naysayer

commentary Stylish, fun, and crowded? No, that's not an Apple Store that just opened in Boston. Microsoft is doing the brick-and-mortar thing with flair.

Microsoft Store
Shoppers fill Microsoft's new store in Boston.
Jim Kerstetter/CNET

BOSTON -- OK, so Microsoft impressed me.

Microsoft opened its first local retail store here this morning. It's in the upscale Prudential Center in the city's equally upscale Back Bay. It also happens to be across the street from a very large and very sleek Apple store -- a common occurrence, it seems, for locations of new Microsoft stores.

Here's what I expected to write about the new Microsoft Store: A somewhat snarky but data-driven piece on Microsoft aping Apple's retail strategy and how it shows the desperation of this once-mighty company. I expected to say this store was a cheap knockoff of Apple's giant, multi-story place across the street. Black velvet Elvis paintings, Formica counters? I dunno. My expectations were not high.

I also expected to mention that last week I sat in on an engineers' meeting at a local cloud-computing startup called Acquia, and was stunned to see that every one of the 30 or so people in the room was working on a Mac. When even the most hardcore of developers are working on Macs, it's a bad a sign for Microsoft. That's the kind of ecosystem, once established, that can take years to break. And Microsoft certainly knows a thing or two about courting developers and creating ecosystems that take years to break.

But here's what I find myself writing now after visiting the new Microsoft Store here: Yes, the company is in a tough spot. It's way behind in the two hottest consumer electronics markets, tablet computing and smartphones. It's made plenty of mistakes over the last 10 years. Heck, I'm writing this on a MacBook because I became so frustrated with the Vista operating system that I gave up on Windows.

But, and it's a big "but" based more on a hunch that hard data, Microsoft seems to understand how it's been consistently outmaneuvered by Apple, Google, and all those companies in the Android mobile orbit. The company gets it, and it's fighting back.

Of course, Microsoft has to produce better products, and we'll find out over the next few months with the next version of Windows, the Surface, and other releases if it has managed to do that.

It also needs to create a better consumer experience, and that's where the stores come in. When Apple first opened its stores, critics scoffed. Clearly, they were wrong. The stores became a conduit to customers. When you buy an Apple product, it's the beginning of your relationship with that company, not the end of it. The convenience of those stores (yes, not everyone is close enough to an Apple store to enjoy that experience) and the education they can provide are priceless to a company that prides itself on customer loyalty.

The Microsoft Store that opened in Boston today was Microsoft's 23rd. They are already in cities ranging from Palo Alto, Calif., to Austin, Texas. It expects to open 44 by next June and 75 total. I say, open even more. Microsoft fans like 34-year-old Michael Hayes of Boston, who was standing in line to get into the store this morning, think these stores allow Microsoft to better connect with its customers.

"I think it's assumed people know how to use Microsoft products. There's not enough training so people understand what they're using," Hayes said. And Hayes, who said he works for a third-party company that trains retailers to sell Microsoft products, might know a thing or two about how these products are sold.

Further back in the line, Pavan Veenla, a graduate student at the nearby Northeastern University, was simply standing in line because he was excited to see a Microsoft Store and what they had to offer (for the record, he uses a Dell laptop running Windows 7). Of course, he added, last week he stopped into the Apple Store across the street and bought an iPhone 4S.

Microsoft officials estimate about 700 people waited to get into the 3,600-square-foot store (granted, a few of them might have been tourists confused by the line bumping into the Duck Boats kiosk). It was a slick event, worthy of, yes, that big computer store across the street. For those of you in Silicon Valley, the Prudential Center is kind of like the Stanford Shopping Center. For those of you in New York City, the Prudential Center is kind of like, well, New York City.

No doubt, this is just a start for Microsoft. Apple has more than 370 stores, it has all the momentum in the world, and it (did you ever think this was possible five years ago?) even has far more money than Microsoft.

Celtics star Paul Pierce is expected to stop by the new store to play some Xbox games this evening. And Saturday, rock star Lenny Kravitz is supposed to perform at a Microsoft-hosted event in town. That 700 people lined up as early as 5 a.m. to get into the new store might have something to do with Microsoft giving away free tickets to the show. Fair enough. Now I'm not much of a Lenny Kravitz fan (maybe I resent his great hair and tight abs), but good on Microsoft for putting on a show.

Microsoft new logo
Microsoft also unveiled its new logo at the Boston store opening. Jim Kerstetter/CNET

This is the part where planned to make a crack about how Microsoft and Lenny Kravitz are a perfect match because they were both more influential in the '90s. But people tell me he was great in "The Hunger Games." I'll take their word for it.

And I'll say this about the new (I almost just typed Apple) Microsoft Store: The people who work there are smart. A number of Ultrabooks are well-displayed. The kids love the Kinect station. It's brightly lit and the computer stations have plenty of elbow room. The walls are covered with video screens and store employees seem to be everywhere. And it provides the kind of relaxed customer experience Microsoft and its partners must provide to compete with Apple.

In other words, it ain't Best Buy.

Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid. But with its most ambitious product lineup in years, Microsoft has a great opportunity to win back the customers it has lost over the last 10 years or so. If it happens, its stores will be the tip of the spear in that fight.