My First (Incredibly Disappointing) Experience at a Microsoft Store:
I made my way to one of the new mini Microsoft experience stores today that opened a few weeks ago alongside the Windows 8, Surface and Windows 8 Phone launches.  It was my first chance to play with any of the Windows 8 devices since they officially launched (though beta products have been floating around at conferences for several months now).  The Microsoft Store was featuring only 4 devices: a Windows 8 Sony laptop with touchscreen, a Surface with the Touch Covers, and two Windows 8 Phones - the Nokia 920 and the HTC 8x.  

For a showcase designed to rival the Apple store with a suite of the highest quality Windows 8 devices, the store was a massive disappointment.  From when I walked up and the entire time I used each of the devices, no one proactively asked me if I need anything or had any questions.  I found this surprising because most people picking up a Windows 8 device right now have never touched one, the experience using a Windows 8 touch laptop or Surface is incredibly different from any Windows device before it.  The user behaviors are completely new, navigating needs to be learned from scratch, and many critical interactions aren't intuitive at all.  So most people will need help, which wasn't offered.

The employees didn't have much knowledge of the devices they were representing.  When I asked an employee if the store was only featuring the Sony laptop because it was the best one available right now, she answered no - that there are better ones with CD drives and Intel inside.  Since the missing disc drive was actually intentional for thin light weight Ultrabooks, and the Sony (like most computers) also had Intel processors, I gave up asking her questions about the laptop.  Then when I asked an employee what the difference was between the two Windows 8 phones, he pointed out the difference in hard drive size, but never mentioned things like the Lumia PureView camera, which is one of the biggest selling points of the Nokia phone.  In many cases, the employees didn't know answers to questions or how to do something on the device; instead, they had to ask another employee in the booth to show them.  

Compare this to Apple employees that typically know everything there is to know about the products in the store, and have a love for them all.  Microsoft is asking people to learn a whole new operating system, one that's completely different than any before it.  And the devices that that live up to the Windows 8 promise, with features like touch screens, require a higher price point than most Windows shoppers are looking to spend.  It will take passionate advocates that can sell the device with extreme ferver to make customers want to go through this change with Microsoft, and not start visting the Apple store next door.  As it stands, I can't see how the Microsoft Store is doing anything to help sell these new attractive but flawed devices.

Now for some cursory thoughts on the medley of Windows 8 devices.  From a far, both of the new Windows 8 Phone devices are beautiful.  But once you pick them up its a very different experience.  The 8x is much slimmer, and the rubber backing makes it much easier to hold.  The screen is just slightly smaller, but the device feels immensely more useable an everyday basis.  Since the 920 is a much more powerful device with an already legendary camera I wanted to like it more, but I couldn't get over the slipperiness and the size.  The Windows 8 Mobile operating system is beautiful and fun to use, and having a completely new OS to explore is very attractive, but the transitions between different apps and menus is annoyingly slow because of the animations.  And the lacking app ecosystem makes Windows Phone almost a non-starter right now.

The Windows 8 touch screen laptops seem like they could be really fun, but navigating the different environments feels overly complex.  And while the Metro interface begs to be touched, I was immediately nervous about the durability of the laptop I was testing once I started pushing the poking and swiping the screen.  Whereas I could see the Metro OS being great on a tablet, I don't see how its an improvement to have it on a very mobile thin laptop or work-oriented desktop (a big family friendly touchscreen device in a kitchen might be a different story).

The Surface tablets do seem like they have promise.  There are some interesting innovations like the ability to view and interact with two apps at once on a split-screen.  Also, I didn't get used to the Touch Cover right away, but I've read that practice makes perfect.  But again, like the Windows 8 Mobile, a lack of apps will really hurt the device in the short term.

Overall, I'm worried for Windows.  They've done a lot to show they have life in them, and that they're fighting for the future.  But they are making massive changes, and facing competition from Apple and Google on all fronts - especially tablet and mobile.  I'd like to see them make progress because competition benefits us all.  But I think they have a long way to go - in operating systems, devices, and retail experience.
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