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Microsoft put out a press release yesterday indicating that they’re going to be opening some retail stores. Heading up the group is former Dreamworks Animation and Wal-mart exec David Porter. Of course many people will see this as Microsoft competing with Apple more directly in the retail space, but I think that Apple is pretty far down the list of reasons why they’re doing this. For Microsoft, this is a chance to completely alter the public’s perception of the company.

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Microsoft is in a fairly unique position in that it is so ubiquitous in our lives, thanks mostly to Windows and IE and, for a smaller number of people, Office and Windows Mobile. Yet it seems at times like there are more people who hate Microsoft and their products than like them. You don’t really see this too often in an industry. Odds are you’re not gonna hear people bashing Budweiser, Kleenex or Levi’s with the same negative passion that’s so common about something like Windows. And what’s funny about it is that, for the most part, the hatred for Windows and All Things Microsoft is largely uninformed. I’m not suggesting that Microsoft or Windows are without their problems, but the vast majority of people I hear complaining about Vista, for instance, have either never used it or can’t tell you anything specific about why they hate  it.

“Oh, man, I HATE Vista!”
“Really? Why?”
“Oh, come on! It sucks! I mean…it just…it’s terrible.”
“What don’t you like about it?”
“Well, I’ve never used it…I’m still on XP THANK GOD…but my buddy told me all about it. It’s a disaster!”

Nobody would be surprised by this conversation, and many of you have probably heard something similar. The fact is that hating Microsoft has almost become a national pasttime. Just like there are people who love to go to baseball games because of the experience more than the game, there seems to be no end to the number of people who express strong, negative opinions on Microsoft and Windows, just because to do so is to be part of some strange societal party.

Microsoft could do a lot to break up that party by being smart about their retail stores, what’s in them and what kind of experience they create for the people who visit them.

Just look at what happened recently with the Beta of Windows 7 and Microsoft’s willingness to not only listen to people, but to actually change a major aspect of Windows 7 security right before our very eyes in order to placate the public, even if what the public was asking for wasn’t entirely necessary.

Suddenly, Microsoft was a bit different. It was a little bit less an evil empire in the eyes of a lot of people, and a little bit more a bunch of people trying their best to make a great product that their customers will like.

The same opportunity exists in retail for Microsoft, but they need to give extremely careful consideration to what they’re going to showcase, product-wise, and how they’re going to make the experience for visitors to those retail spaces informative, fun and satisfying.

And it won’t be easy. Unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t make computers and can’t control, beyond certification of compatibility, what goes into the computers that their retail customers will be using. Think about Microsoft trying to do something akin to Apple’s Genius Bar and you can imagine how difficult of a proposition that is with an infinite number of system specs and pre-installed software. Sure, they could limit such services to just dealing with Microsoft software, but Granny who’s been waiting for 45 minutes may not emotionally be able to separate her frustration from the fact that Microsoft, indeed, is not responsible for the trouble caused when she downloaded 3,000 free smileys and started having trouble browsing the interwebz afterward.

I do think having a help desk at Microsoft stores, just for Microsoft consumer produccts, would be a great idea. But I think it might be in Microsoft’s best interest to also hold free classes from time to time on the basics of using a computer. Cover the things that SO many non-tech-savvy users have trouble with or don’t know about. Many of these things might seem ridiculous to experienced users, but many people don’t know about right-clicking, mousewheel scrolling, what the difference is between the IE address field and the Google search field (ugh) and the biggie that plagues more people than you can imagine: How to choose where you save files and how to find them again – unbelievably, the most basic concepts about the file system hierarchy are completely lost on more users than you can imagine.

It might be nice to see a home theater setup at a Microsoft store, to show people how cool Windows Media Center is and how it can be integrated with a home entertainment system, either through a PC or remotely through an Xbox 360.

Computers should be set up to showcase specific components of Windows and Office that not only allow people to learn about them in the first place, but that get people excited about using them.

I think it’d also be really cool to see exclusive previews of upcoming game titles both for the PC and the Xbox 360, and this is one way that MS could really engage people and bring in bodies: Have mini in-store events where new titles will be unveiled or shown off even before demos are released publicly, before they’re covered in the gaming press.

And how about running videos or showcasing other creative endeavors that were created with Windows software like MovieMaker? Things like this will go a long way toward building community and educating people as to how many things can be done in Windows that they might not know about.

And all of it helps to turn the tide in Microsoft’s favor at a time when they could really use it.

What about you? What would you want to see at a Microsoft store?