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Apple vs. Microsoft: The Stores

Josh Wolonick

As promised yesterday in my story about the Surface, I took a lunchtime field trip to the Microsoft (MSFT) Store in Times Square, followed by the Apple (AAPL) Store on Fifth Avenue. In general, I found the Microsoft Store much more pleasant; I felt the staff really working to draw me in and show me their new product. Of course, Apple doesn't need to work so hard. My intention with the trip was to see how sales of Microsoft's Surface are going, as official numbers have not been released. I only got an impression of how sales are actually doing, but I return to Minyanville with some new notions about both companies.

The Microsoft Store looks a lot like an Apple Store, with minimalist design, wooden tables with displayed devices, a high ceiling, and big windows. As they do at the Apple store, the cheerful employees were wearing colorful T-shirts and lanyards simply displaying their first name. Around noon there are always 20 sales representatives on the floor, I was told. It is impossible to ignore how eager they are to help you buy a Surface.

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I was immediately able to get my hands on the Surface RT, and without 10 seconds passing I was approached by a sales representative who showed me the ropes. He was knowledgeable, kind, and yes, he had a Surface himself. He liked it for its multitasking abilities (he's a student). The Metro interface worked smoothly and looks sleek in person, but the desktop interface, as I have read and heard around, was clunky and felt completely unnecessary (the sales associate told me he didn't even use it). The body of the device felt solid and well engineered, and it definitely has more ports for cables and cards (appealing to the more technically minded PC users, off-putting Apple users' sense of aesthetics). The keyboard cover looked good (I liked the blue one), clicked solidly into place and was immediately functioning. It was even solid enough to put on my lap. Yesterday I wrote that people have complained it doesn't quite work as a laptop, but I thought it worked fine.

Looking around the store, two people were purchasing Surfaces. Maybe 20 more were browsing, getting their hands on the devices, perhaps deliberating over whether to buy, perhaps, like me, just seeing what Microsoft has proposed to do about tablets.

I asked a woman, who had just purchased her Surface, why she chose the device over the iPad or iPad mini. Very simply, she responded, "I'm Windows," giving me immediate insight into the brand allegiance at play here. Besides it being less expensive, (the 32GB Surface with touch cover key board costs $599, the 32GB iPad costs $599 without any kind of keyboard), the Surface is very obviously a Windows machine. People who stick with Microsoft are very happy to have a tablet of their own now. As another woman visiting from Italy said to me as she walked passed the store, "We're more about Microsoft in Italy."

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I took the N train up a few stops to the southeast corner of Central Park, where the Fifth Avenue Apple Store hides beneath a bold, glass cube. When you see it from far away, it looks like the Apple logo at its center is levitating in mid air. Once I descended the spiral staircase (and it takes a minute or two because there is always a line of people), I couldn't even see the whole floor at once. The place was at least five or six times bigger than the Microsoft Store, and this is one of five Apple stores in the city. Because of the sheer size and number of people in the place, I didn't even want to think about counting the sales associates. I asked one of them how many people worked the floor and they gave me the number of their PR person, who still hasn't returned my call. There must have been around 100 sales associates on the floor.

I came away with a practical prospective on the current states of Microsoft and Apple, at least as far as retail and tablets are concerned. Though Microsoft still leads the way with office software (here I sit, typing on Microsoft Word), the brand is still green and unproven in retail and tablet computing. Apple is much bigger, sexier, more desirable, more intimidating. It knows retail better. It knows the tablet better. It knew releasing the iPad mini alongside Microsoft's launch of the Surface would be a good idea: I spoke with one man who said he preferred his tablet to be small. Just when Microsoft entered the market, Apple expanded it to include a whole new set of people, just by making a small change in size. Brilliant.

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It is inevitable that iPads will outsell Surfaces this quarter. It is inevitable that Microsoft has some serious catching up to do. The salespeople at Microsoft were excited about their Surfaces, but their peers at Apple were confident. Microsoft, in the fields of retail and tablets at least, has become an underdog, and that should be acknowledged and played to in its marketing, because people love an underdog. Apple was an underdog, too. What remains to be seen is if Apple can hold on to its position as the king of computers, something Microsoft was unable to do.