One man’s visit to the Microsoft Store.

Coincidentally, I live a couple blocks from the University Village, the outdoor mall where Microsoft recently opened its latest store. Not coincidentally, the new Microsoft Store lies directly across from, and faces, Seattle’s only Apple Store. It’s a Fortune 500 staring contest and it’s in my own backyard!

Curiosity got the better of me last weekend, so I dropped in. The Microsoft Store is a maximalist clone of its competitor: it’s wildly exuberant, brightly colorful, walled with video in constant motion, and reverberant with obnoxious techno. All of Apple’s retail principles are in play: Microsoft’s store is segmented by product category; customers are encouraged to put products in their hands; there’s no obvious checkout line; it’s clear where to go for help.

Moments after I entered, a Microsoft retail associate was there to assist. He pushed me toward the Samsung Series 7 Tablet and, unasked, started rattling off its great features. “It’s got full Windows 7, so you can do stuff like Microsoft Word. But if you want icons to touch, it can do a grid of icons too.” I tuned out when I saw the price: $1300 for the base tablet and $1600 for a configuration that might be useful. The tablet was surprisingly heavy and awkward to hold; it was so sluggish that browsing seemed impractical. I tuned back in just in time to hear my friendly retail associate conclude: “Everyone wants one of these. They’re selling like hotcakes.” I’m sure they are.

The same sad story repeated itself throughout the store: one subpar product after another, presented in a beautiful (if over-the-top) retail space. Perhaps there’s a problem of curation, or perhaps junk is the Windows world’s only option? I waltzed over to the mobile section and discovered that the latest Windows 7 phone hardware wasn’t even on display — everything seemed one hardware iteration out-of-date. Here’s a case where Microsoft could genuinely showcase beautiful of-the-moment products but somehow failed to do so.

There were perhaps two dozen customers milling about the Microsoft Store. It felt full. After giving up on shoddy tablets and out-of-date phones, I walked across the parking lot to see how Apple was faring. The Apple Store was packed to the brim: I could barely thread my way to the table full of iPod Nanos. As I looked around I realized that, beyond just being full, the Apple Store was full of purchasing customers. Lots of money was changing hands. I hadn’t seen a single transaction at the Microsoft Store.

I should stop for a moment and explain that I have skin in this game. I worked for Microsoft for many years and still own thousands of shares of stock. I have skin in the competing game, too. I bought my first iPod in mid-2004, when I still worked in Redmond. A lightbulb went off and I decided to hedge my bets by investing heavily in Apple. I’ll let you guess which investment panned out.

It pains me deeply to see Microsoft putting its worst foot forward. The Microsoft Store is very nearly an argument to buy Apple gear instead. I hope Microsoft gets its act together, because good competition is good for everyone. But for now, it’s like my mother used to say: “If you don’t have anything nice to sell, don’t sell anything at all.”