In discussing plans by Microsoft to open retail stores, much is made of their proximity to Apple outlets.
Other analysts focus on the two companies’ ongoing product rivalry.
But there is another reason for the move few dare discuss. That is the collapse of the retail tech channel.
Certainly retailing has evolved with time. I’m old enough to remember actual PC stores, chains like ComputerLand and even mom-and-pop shops, where young people hung around and traded tech tips in the early 1980s.
In the 1990s computer retailing moved from strip malls to big boxes, with chains like CompUSA eventually giving away to consumer electronic outlets like BestBuy and Fry’s. The Internet also took a major bite from the market.
These days even your kid knows how to shop for a PC. They understand GHz and GBytes, they know the technical specs differentiating a game machine from a Netbook.
Drive down a suburban highway, or along the margins of any mall, and you find PC expertise confined to sad repair shops without inventory, if you can find any at all. The industry’s retail footprint no longer exists.
Yet technology continues to evolve. New product categories keep emerging. Many were pioneered by Apple, and knowledge of these new products was driven into the market by its Apple Stores.
For decades Microsoft relied on powerful OEMs and channel partners to get its kit into your hands. But the brand you see on a Windows Mobile phone is not the same as the one you see on a Windows Netbook. New channel partners are pushing service contracts and most can’t answer hardware questions.
So the old dog Microsoft is forced to learn a new trick. It must build its own retail presence, under its own brand name, or watch consumer knowledge of what it offers continue to wither.
Steve Jobs has a decade-long head start on Bill Gates’ successors, and his brand has a better reputation among consumers than Microsoft’s, which is why Apple gear costs more than Microsoft gear.
Can Microsoft really build a big name brand? This is the first market fight it has entered in decades as a decided underdog.
This is going to be fun to watch.