Paying a Visit to the Microsoft Store

Last Friday, I hauled myself to a Microsoft Store to have a glimpse of the Microsoft Surface. And, in short, I’m very pleased that I did.

With no intention of purchasing and few expectations of queues, I chose to arrive just before the pop-up shop’s 10 a.m. opening time. Collecting my coffee, I walked through a deserted parking lot and made my way into the mall.

Upon opening the door, I was greeted by the unmistakeable din associated with all of the product launches I’ve ever attended. People were distantly talking and even sporadically cheering. Typically I wouldn’t be surprised by the awkward yells of joy, but, in this particular instance, the rabble was a genuine shock. With the pop-up shop located in a distant Dallas suburb, I had expected that I would be one of about three people checking out the launch. Not to mention the fact that this was a Microsoft launch — an event I thought would be reserved to a handful of light-deprived basement-dwelling people.

Instead, as I made my way to the pop-up shop, I discovered a line of at least 100 smiling people and growing. Moreover, at the actual kiosk itself, there were dozens of people milling around the multi-colored Surface units.

Bleary-eyed and wary of a crowd of over-eager and sleep-deprived Microsoft fans, I aimed myself right toward a Surface with a black Touch Cover. Having watched The Verge’s video review, I immediately began swiping and tapping away at the screen, much to the confusion of the people either side of me.

Aware that I seemed to comprehend the Surface’s Windows RT interface, the people either side of me began to mirror my gestures and ask questions about the Surface. Oddly enough, the most prevalent question I received was: “What other screen sizes does this come in?”

In the months I’ve been writing about the Surface and Windows 8/RT, I had never heard anything about a different display size for the Surface and the only possible reason I could find for this confusion was Apple’s disruptive timing with the iPad Mini’s release. Beyond the obvious clout associated with the iPad brand, Apple clearly sought to take the wind out of Microsoft’s sails last week and, judging by my time at the Microsoft Store, the tactic certainly worked.

With regard to the device itself, I was impressed. Amidst the two groups either side of me, I was able to spend a solid twenty or thirty minutes using the device — all the while unabated by any Microsoft employees as other reports suggest was a prevalent occurrence. I swiped through apps, perused the Windows Store, visited OneThirtySeven, dabbled with the kickstand and touch cover, and even had a brief moment with the Type Cover. Through all of this, there was a resounding feeling of, for lack of a better word, solidity.

Whether it was the hardware or the primary software experience, I quickly felt at home with the Surface. And, from a few minutes of experimentation, I even went so far as to get into line to purchase one (32GB with a blue touch cover, if you must know).

But, within two or three minutes of queueing, I became cognizant that I was merely being swept up by the hype. That the cheerful colors, bright screens, and smiling fans had gotten to me.

As someone who has a tendency toward supporting the underdog, I realized that I’d embraced a condescending attitude toward a multi-billion dollar company. As I tried to count the number of Windows Phone devices being used in line (none) compared to iOS (many), to find excuses for the dearth of apps, and to crack a smile at the cringeworthy cheers from the expectant consumers, I realized that I was pandering my reactions in the hope that I might find something worthy of praise.

The fact of the matter is, though, that what I witnessed last Friday was several years late. As much as I was genuinely impressed with the Surface, I was grading it, and Microsoft, on a curve.

I don’t mean this in an Apple versus Microsoft manner, but that’s precisely the fight that Microsoft is in. The Surface is not being positioned as an Amazon, Google, or Barnes & Noble-esque device, but rather a behemoth capable of shifting consumer perceptions of touch-enabled hardware.

The only company that has successfully been able to attend to such an auspicious goal so far has been Apple.

And, heaping further problems atop this goal, Microsoft has been in this precise position repeatedly in recent years. The company has grown into a habitual manufacturer of affable and impressive products like the Zune HD which have all arrived far, far too late at market.

The Surface, in my eyes, is a truly good product. I found the hardware package to be extremely well done, the OS to be attractive, functional and forward-thinking, and the Touch Cover to be a pleasant novelty accessory akin to Apple’s Smart Cover. But, at the same time, there’s a dogged truth that Microsoft must find developer support for this operating system and product-line or it will — as has happened in the past — fail miserably.

On the plus side, I believe the narrative being told by Microsoft is one of the most important in the industry today. Beyond Apple releasing a thinner and lighter iPad, Microsoft is attempting something uncharacteristically bold and, in many respects, it’s doing a very good job of it so far. The Store is an obvious riff on the successful Apple model, but it’s engaging and attractive for consumers. The operating system lacks widespread developer support, but it’s functionally delightful and promising. In short, Microsoft’s intentions are of the utmost importance and affability. What remains — and has yet to be seen — are its practical levels of success in the marketplace.

Concerning one of the more controversial elements of the Surface, the inclusion of the Desktop, I genuinely found it to be a superfluous and unnecessary element of the Windows RT experience. When I first approached my Surface display unit, I found the device to be open to Word. Honestly, beyond a cursory glance, I was utterly uninterested in seeing Office or the legacy Desktop. As much as we in the Apple community are keen to focus on this portion of the experience, it really is a fleeting and non-central element of the operating system.

At the same time, it was admittedly jarring to see a Surface further down the counter from mine at the Desktop showing the old Windows 7 background. It felt as thought I was looking at some sort of strange new Windows 7 laptop — one that I would never buy.

Just as iOS is so successful because of the ecosystem of apps and media, however, so too will Windows RT be characterized by the experiences offered by third party developers. Office competitors and productivity apps will appear in the Windows Store and, in doing so, the Desktop’s use will steadily be obviated.

Focusing upon the lingering inclusion of the Desktop, and Microsoft’s woefully ignorant decision to market Office 2013 for it, is reductive of the experience Microsoft is attempting to provide. Perhaps the company has marketed it in an ill-advised fashion, but when has Microsoft ever gotten such consumer-facing rhetoric just right?

All in all, the Surface and Windows RT put an unexpected smile on my face. Rationally, the device and operating system are not for me in their current state, but they are clearly of interest and excitement for a great many people. Whether their reasoning is sound or not, the Surface and RT are clearly under — at the very least — modest levels of demand. And, for me, that’s a deservedly good thing for Microsoft.

Microsoft’s decision to pursue such a bold narrative may prove to be damaging for the company in some core areas of its business, but, more importantly for me, it will unquestionably drive innovation in its competitors. And, regardless of which brand you typically buy into, that’s a beneficial trend for the industry.

I’m going to keep an eye on the Windows Store for the coming weeks. Should it show signs of compelling growth, I may consider getting ahold of a Surface for lengthier and more in-depth testing. But, for now, I’m content being cautiously impressed and taken aback by what Microsoft has managed to achieve with Windows RT, the Surface, and its Stores. Each one is flawed and the latter is a blatant rip-off, but they are also unmistakable indicators of a forward-thinking and intelligent Microsoft for the future.

Still, as the gentleman to my left continued to rest his arm on the Touch Cover and accidentally type, and the woman to my right relied solely on the Desktop, I was reminded that Microsoft faces a difficult battle — one that will not be won by the pseudo-positive responses of an Apple consumer or the hundred Microsoft-faithful in line. It’s a fight for the average consumer and the enterprise. A fight to which Microsoft is many years late.

Whether it proves to be too late is the real question. And, oddly enough, I find myself quietly hoping that it’s not.