Microsoft’s decision to move into the retail space is the culmination of a relentless brand-building marathon that has seen the company become the Coca-Cola of technology.
Strange to think that, until 20 years ago, most people had probably not heard of Microsoft. It was the invisible force behind DOS, that thing that appeared on your computer when you pressed the on button but the company was only known to geeks. It was a parts maker in a computing world dominated by IBM and its stealth move to make Windows, rather than OS/2, the software platform of choice for PCs was seen by many as an act of chutzpah by an upstart. Even after the enormous success of Windows 3.0, there were those pundits who contended that Bill Gates had tweaked the lion’s tail and that the result would be terminal and messy.
And even back then, Microsoft’s success was as much about marketing as technology. Its press office operated with ruthless efficiency, courting journalists and analysts with titbits about its plans at a time when a grey IBM did ‘not comment on unannounced products’, and Apple bled from self-imposed wounds. It had the nous to bundle mice with Windows and create rigid guidelines on its logos, colour schemes and product names. Its advertising was dynamic, its relationships with ISVs, resellers and hardware makers were superb, and in Bill Gates it had a CEO superstar, venerated as a technology seer the world over. All of this seemed to be enough to get away with a fundamentally unreliable product.
Microsoft also had a gargantuan appetite for growth. It dominated PC operating systems then dominated desktop applications before moving onto the server, games, the internet and services. Through it all, it marketed the heck out of its products, its people and its brands.
Today, Microsoft is among the most recognised names in the world and, even in semi-retirement, Bill Gates a byword for technology and worldly success. No wonder Microsoft feels it can be a success in retail stores: Apple and Sony have already shown the way forward and Microsoft has the depth of pocket and the brand awareness to do it – and sell pretty well anything it wants.