The consumer incarnation of Microsoftiness

Microsoft opens its first retail store -- not exactly a software emporium, but an opportunity to brand the geek lifestyle.

Published June 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you think that the essence of Microsoft is embodied in neatly stacked shelves of shrink-wrapped software, think again. If you believe that the Microsoft lifestyle is about bleary-eyed hours of writing code while your boss ruthlessly builds a monopolistic empire, you're wrong.

The Microsoft world is all about sushi-ginger stationery. It's synonymous with miniature Japanese rock gardens, aroma therapy kits and velvet pillows stuffed with buckwheat hulls. And this most unusual microcosm of Microsoft isn't afraid to stray from Washington to be at one with its people. Or so a visit to the new MicrosoftSF flagship store in San Francisco would lead you to believe.

The MicrosoftSF store opened two weeks ago, part of Sony's splashy new Metreon megamall-amusementplex in San Francisco, as the first (and possibly last) consumer incarnation of Microsoftiness. Ensconced on the second story of Sony's modernist monstrosity -- adjacent to the Airtight Garage arcade, one floor below the IMAX theatre and two floors below the "Where the Wild Things Are" funhouse -- MicrosoftSF takes its cue from the superstore concept already popularized by Nike and Disney. It also closely mimics the Sony Style store, one floor below.

But MicrosoftSF is more than just a fetishistic display of software -- though that's what you might expect from the entrance, where shrink-wrapped boxes of Microsoft Office2000 lay, lovingly spot-lit, in glass display cases. MicrosoftSF is a kind of Pottery Barn for the computer crowd, but instead of martini glasses and leather armchairs there are super-sized coffee mugs and aluminum desk sets.

Retailing is increasingly turning into pre-packaged lifestyle vending; Microsoft is simply inscribing its mark on the computer-as-lifestyle territory.

It was Lily Kanter, the store's business manager, who developed the concept for MicrosoftSF after seeing the music kiosks in Sony's New York superstore, which let customers play with merchandise before buying. "I thought, wouldn't it be great if you could do the same with software, because it sits there in a box and no one knows what its functionality is until they load it on their computer," enthuses Kanter. "Let's get the software out of the box and showcase it in a lifestyle environment around working, living, learning and playing!"

The result is a spacious retail store, with whitewashed walls and bleached-wood and glass accents. It is split up into topical areas like "small business," "successful living," "road warrior" and "playing with Windows." Each section features not only the Microsoft software most suited to the topic, but assorted related accouterments.

In the "creative publishing" area, for example, MicrosoftSF has an enormous wedding planning display. Towering over copies of Microsoft Home Publishing Suite '99, is a mannequin wearing a silver micro-mini wedding dress and bridal veil, brandishing a silver spray-painted bouquet and a glass wedding cake etched with chip designs. Here, you can buy not only floral wedding invitations that fit your home printer, but the "Bride's Little Book of Bouquets and Flowers," pastel Shantung jewelry satchels and a glass cake plate. You'll also find that sushi-ginger stationery, essentially salmon-colored paper for thank you notes.

Over in "successful living," MicrosoftSF is pushing arty household items: boxes of Family Lawyer 99 share shelf-space with silk, beanbag wrist rests, etched glass vases and mugs emblazoned with the dictionary definition of "passionate." The "small business" area pushes a cedar "Now and Zen" desk clock, incense sticks and that miniature Japanese rock garden.

Is Microsoft hoping to soften its limping public image by associating itself with all things New Agey and positive? Could the ruse work?

Despite the slightly hokey and pseudo-spiritual subtext of the store's presentation, the array of accessories is surprisingly cool. Most are things you might find in a museum store; many are produced by local artists. Computer slaves will likely delight in some of the funkier objects: laptop cases that are truly stylish, mesh bags, neon rubber disc-holders and collapsible metal files. And so far, no one else has created such a venue to serve up arty versions of everyday computer lifestyle objects.

Besides the knickknacks, there are assorted displays of Windows CE-based personal digital assistants, Sony laptops, one lonely iMac on a shelf of Mac-friendly software -- even a baby grand piano with a computer hidden inside. The most popular section of the store is the games area, where you can sit, arcade-style, and play popular Microsoft games (not surprisingly, this area is packed with kids fighting over the six available seats).

Then there's the "playing with Windows" logoware, which includes everything from refrigerator magnets to MicrosoftSF t-shirts, squeeze balls and baseball caps emblazoned with the "Go" slogan, plus stationery imprinted with Windows icons. Interestingly enough, these items were conceived by Sony -- which actually runs the store and has had an equal role in building it -- but the goods all adhere to "Microsoft brand guidelines." A "Microsoft identity handbook" defines the exact style of the pixelated font and the primary colors of the Windows logo, says Kanter.

Personally, I'm baffled as to who would intentionally ante up for Microsoft-branded gear -- as opposed to getting it free at a conference -- but according to store employees, the stuff is quite popular with the foreign tourists. (There are places, apparently, where the company's businesses practices and the antitrust suit have not soiled the Microsoft image.)

All these feel-good lifestyle trinkets catch the eye, but more than half of the store's shelf-space is dedicated to pushing Microsoft's core goods. Each display table boasts trim Sony VAIO computers displaying software -- touch screen demos and workstations where you can goof around with a variety of programs. Many weren't working when I visited, as the store was suffering from startup glitches. Discreet signs ask visitors to refrain from using the computers for more than 10 minutes. It seems it had taken no time for the computer-deprived to begin monopolizing the machines, checking e-mail and writing lengthy essays. A number of empty stations bear witness to the computers' tendency to crash when overused.

Hovering around this whole fun house are the MicrosoftSF employees -- these are actually Sony folks, so don't blame them for your buggy software -- dressed in virginal white from head to toe and politely enthusiastic about answering all your questions. As for the customers, they seemed to be a mix of tourists diligently scouring the complex, conference wonks wandering over from the nearby Moscone Center and a few locals passing through en route to the Metreon food court.

Unfortunately, the Microsoft store lacks the kind of whiz-bang fun needed to compete with the other exploratory Metreon stores: namely, the Sony Style store, but also the Playstation and Discovery Channel stores in the complex.

Demos of Office2000 and stylish aluminum coffee mugs, nifty as they might be, just can't compare to the fancy HDTV television sets, DVD players, game machines, video cameras and other gadgetry that lie on the shelves downstairs.

Certainly, Sony Style managed to attract more people during my visits, although that may be because the store seems to serve as a repository for bored men, who stand three deep around the numerous oversized televisions. Sony seems to have realized the potential testosterone bounty here, as each of the TVs was playing a different action movie ("Terminator 2," "Anaconda," "Batman & Robin"). Sony Style also boasts a Starbucks and a music store within the Style store. Irresistible, no?

Though MicrosoftSF lacks the gimmicks needed to one-up its paternal neighbor, it still glimmers with the potential to spread its tentacles, Pottery Barn-like, through the world. No other lifestyle store has targeted the devotee of the digital age; certainly, this is a hip population whose time has come and whose pocketbooks are deep.

Perhaps MicrosoftSF could start selling rugs and couches discreetly patterned with the Windows icon. Like Pottery Barn and Banana Republic, MicrosoftSF could put together a shopping soundtrack that doubles as easy listening for your computer lifestyle (including, of course, the "Start Me Up" theme courtesy of the Rolling Stones). If superstores can brand yuppie living rooms, why can't Microsoft do the same with geek offices, even geek households?

Thankfully, perhaps, there are no immediate plans to expand the Microsoft store concept into other cities around the world. As Kanter puts it, the MicrosoftSF location was "very synergistic, San Francisco being a high-tech locale and the Metreon being next to Moscone. I don't know where else in the world it would make sense for us to do another one."

I guess you couldn't sell that stuff in Redmond.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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