Windows Gurus: May We Help You?

Microsoft has come up with a toolkit consisting of Windows Gurus and Windows store-within-a-store kiosks at major retail stores to boost the image of Windows Vista. Will the effort be enough?

A new and growing workforce of Microsoft partners called "Windows Gurus" will fan out to major retail stores across the United States this year to help in Microsoft's Herculean effort to reshape perceptions of the Windows Vista operating system.

Over the next few months, Microsoft is commissioning the hiring and training of 155 Windows Gurus who will be deployed to retail stores in 11 states and the District of Columbia to help consumers with their Windows PC purchases.

The question is: Will there be enough Gurus to make a difference?

Vista Air Cover
Vista has been one of Microsoft's toughest sells. Voluntary adoption has been slow, and customers keep clamoring instead for support extensions on Windows XP. Perceptions abound about user-unfriendliness, a scandal erupted over OEM requirements, and problems with device drivers and application incompatibility have also kept users away. Against this background, Microsoft failed to challenge Apple Inc. as the Cupertino, Calif.-computermaker defined the operating system with its devastating "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads featuring comedian John Hodgman as the hapless and crash-prone PC.

Over this past summer, Microsoft signaled that it had finally had enough of being an industry patsy. Brad Brooks, corporate vice president for Windows marketing, gave a speech at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in which he said that Microsoft was finished letting others define the OS with what he described as myths. In fact, Brooks told partners, the company was drawing "a line in the sand." He didn't have many details at the time, other than citing a few ads in major newspapers and new Vista-related Web sites for independent software vendors and independent hardware vendors. "The programs that we are announcing are just the first few drops in a big wave that's coming over the coming weeks, and are going to hit a crescendo in the next couple of months," Brooks pledged.

Around the same time, Microsoft rolled out its Mojave Project, a series of videotaped interviews with regular users who believed they were getting a preview of a future version of Windows. Asked for their impressions of Vista, the users, or at least those whose reactions were shared by Microsoft, recited common complaints about Vista. Using the new operating system, the users said on camera how much they liked this "new" OS -- which, of course, was actually Vista.

Figure 1
[Click on image for larger view.]
The Retail Experience Center at Microsoft's Redmond campus is a prototype for the Windows kiosks that Microsoft plans to install at Best Buy and Circuit City stores around the United States.

But Brooks was referring to Microsoft's $300 million contract with Miami-based advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which was directed to come up with a massive campaign supporting Vista. That promised crescendo started to arrive in September with the widely aired television spots of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld meeting in a shoe store and later living together with a family in the suburbs. With no computers in sight, the ads caused a bit of head-scratching around the industry.

Combined with the widely panned Mojave Project, the critical consensus was that Microsoft's new marketing efforts were fizzling. But later in September, Microsoft's campaigns started to find their footing. Whether the shift from the Seinfeld-based ads was planned, as Microsoft contends, or a response to the lukewarm reception, as others suggested, the ads moved to a "Real PC" theme. Some of them start out with a John Hodgman-looking character saying, "I'm a PC." Then they move through lots of people shown following their passions and turning to the camera to say, "I'm a PC." Among those in the ads are green architect Edouard Francois, astronaut Bernard Harris, actress Eva Longoria and author Deepak Chopra, as well as an "Ultimate Fighter," teachers, cabbies, designers and fishmongers. The underlying message is that the way a computer looks isn't what makes it cool -- it's what the computer allows people to do that makes it cool.

Bill Veghte, senior vice president for Microsoft's Online Services & Windows Business Group, summed up the thinking behind the "Real PC" campaign in a public statement: "Windows is truly the shared language of creativity and connection for more than one billion people," he said. "It's a vibrant community of individuals who are passionate about how Windows helps them express their ideas and live life on their own terms. Starting today, we want to reflect the passion and excitement of this community in how we tell the story of the Windows brand."

Working Through Channels
The television ad campaigns are only one piece of the effort. Part of Microsoft's hundreds of millions of dollars of investment is going into two channel efforts. One involves working with a variety of OEM manufacturers, including Acer Inc., AsusTek Computer Inc., Dell Inc., Founder Technology Group Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo, Samsung, Sony Corp., Toshiba America Inc., Wortmann AG and Packard Bell. The idea is to work with the major manufacturers on developing the performance characteristics that really matter to users. "Laptop users come and go multiple times a day -- they're always putting PCs to sleep and resuming, or perhaps shutting down and booting up. Other users may be constantly launching Web browsers and surfing the Internet. These are the things that largely shape people's Windows experience, and so these are some of the areas we're measuring and working with our OEM partners to optimize," Veghte says. "Ultimately, we want to give that time back to our customers."

Microsoft also believes there's plenty of room for improvement in the retail store experience, so its new Windows Gurus will spearhead a major channel initiative there.

Tom Pilla, Microsoft's general manager of corporate communications, declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview with Redmond Channel Partner. But he told The Associated Press that there would be 155 Windows Gurus in stores by the end of 2008, adding that the program would be expanded afterward based on the success of that early effort. Pilla told the AP that the campaign is meant to help consumers grasp and take advantage of the interconnectedness of Microsoft's products, including the OS, the mobile OS and Windows Live online services. "There's an ease of use I don't think we've done a great job of communicating when [customers are] using Windows and when they have Windows in their lives," Pilla said.

In addition, "we must deliver a world-class shopping experience that aligns with the brand promise and our online presence," Veghte said. "That is why we are working with our key retail partners to make the process of evaluating, selecting and purchasing PCs with Windows as simple and informative as possible."

The first of those key retail partners are Best Buy and Circuit City stores in the United States.

At the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in July, Windows marketing chief Brad Brooks previewed the "crescendo" of Windows marketing activity that started hitting the airwaves in September.

A 'Guru' Defined
Microsoft is accepting applications for Windows Gurus online at According to criteria on that site, the company is seeking people who can "use [their] talents to help people discover how to use their PC in new and different ways" and "show people how they can use technology to do things they never thought they could do."

A job description gives a hint of what Gurus will do:

  • Demonstrate the power of the PC in fun, inspirational ways
  • Take the fear and complexity out of technology and make it easy and enjoyable
  • Empower others through how-to trainings and workshops
  • Answer questions and offer solutions to retail customers

Guru jobs are described as full time, including weekend hours; pay is listed as $20 per hour or more.

Questions on the job application suggest that the company is seeking people with experience in major retail chains specializing in technology such as Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, Fry's Electronics, Micro Center, Office Depot, OfficeMax or Staples. It also asks about each applicant's training experience, sales experience and technology-demonstration experience.

Several questions hint at the type of technological integration Microsoft hopes the Gurus will be able to provide for customers. Applicants are asked what they typically use the Internet for, whether they have personal Web sites or blogs, how often they check e-mail, whether they own digital cameras, whether they edit and share photos using PCs, whether they use MP3 players and purchase music online, which types of gaming consoles they own and whether their cell phones have data capabilities. Experience with the Mac OS and Linux appears to be a plus as well.

While the Gurus are supposed to be Microsoft experts, they won't actually be Microsoft employees. According to the application page, Windows Gurus will be employed by Mosaic Sales Solutions, an Irving, Texas-based company that helps its clients present their products in retail stores. Mosaic has another U.S. office in Irvine, Calif., and two offices in Canada.

Mosaic, which bills itself as part of the last link in the supply chain, offers four core services. First, the company does merchandising to help companies present their brands positively and consistently in all retail locations. Second, it offers direct and assisted selling through field specialists who connect with customers to make transactions go more smoothly and close sales. It also offers what it calls "product knowledge transfer" to train retail associates to become "brand ambassadors." Finally, Mosaic offers tailored events in retail locations and communities. While all those services could have a role in Microsoft's retail play, part of what Microsoft is contracting Mosaic to do fits with an additional company specialty: recruiting services. According to Mosaic's Web site, the company provides "talent acquisition of profiled specialists which match the 'Image and Soul' of our clients' brands."

Once Mosaic hires the Gurus, Microsoft plans to deploy them in Best Buy stores and Circuit City stores around the country. Over the past year, Microsoft has run a pilot program of the effort in 25 stores internationally. Veghte compared a Guru's role as similar to that of a personal shopper for the upscale Nordstrom department store chain, with the emphasis on informing and supporting customers rather than on making sales. As the want ads indicate, compensation will be hourly rather than commission-based, and Pilla has also said that post-sale customer support won't be part of the Windows Guru job description. That's an important caveat because it eliminates a possible conflict with Microsoft's hosts. Specifically, Best Buy has its Geek Squad organization for home and small business support and services. Circuit City offers a similar service called Firedog.

Veghte's positioning of the Gurus as being akin to Nordstrom's personal shoppers substitutes for the more obvious comparison and contrast of Microsoft's efforts to the Apple Stores. Microsoft has also declined interviews with other publications on the topic of how Microsoft's effort compares to the Apple model of dedicated retail stores.

While this initiative doesn't involve dedicated stores, Microsoft does intend to airdrop the Gurus into some sort of infrastructure. The company is building kiosks for retail stores to promote the Windows experience. The plan is for stores to have kiosk displays that Microsoft describes as "Windows-branded sales environments" and "store-within-a-store concepts." The company opened a prototype at the Redmond campus called the Retail Experience Center.

The Core of an Apple Retail Store
A longtime PC owner gets a first-hand look at the other side.

By Anne Stuart

I'm a PC.

In the ongoing advertising war between Apple Inc. ("I'm a Mac") and Microsoft ("I'm a PC"), I've always been in the latter camp.

Partly by choice but largely by default, I've primarily used PCs at home and at work for more than 20 years. But I didn't realize that my PC-ness was visible to others until I recently made my first visit to an Apple Store in an upscale mall west of Boston.

A good friend who works for Apple (who loves the company so much she says she'd represent their products for free) agreed to help my younger brother buy his first computer for home use. I went along to facilitate introductions -- and to get a peek at the place where "Mac people" hang out.

The mall was nearly deserted -- except for the Apple Store, where about 20 people were milling around a front door that had been roped off with a crowd-control barricade like those used in nightclubs. Because the store was already crammed with customers, two Apple gatekeepers let in only a few people at a time, giving preference to those who'd booked personal-shopping appointments in advance.

My friend steered us to the head of the line. She waved the equivalent of a backstagepass -- her employee ID -- at the gatekeepers, announcing that my brother did, in fact, have an appointment. One gatekeeper escorted us past the envious hordes, giving me the once-over. "I'm with them," I said, and slipped around the barricade.

Once inside, my companions went off to meet the personal shopper, leaving me alone on the crowded sales floor. Stranded in that sea of Macs, I'd never felt more like a PC. I have no tattoos. It's been years since a bartender checked my ID. My own laptop computer is gunmetal gray rather than gleaming white. And my cell phone doesn't have GPS mapping capability. But I do own an iPod, so I let a friendly employee steer me to the iPod accessories, where I browsed happily until the computer transaction was complete.

Ultimately, the Apple Store fulfilled its mission: My brother asked lots of questions, got lots of answers, spent lots of money -- and went home happy. I'm guessing he's a Mac for life. And although I'm still clearly a PC, the experience gave me insight into the attraction to the other side.

Apple's Web site emphasizes two key messages about its retail stores -- that they're staffed by "some of the world's most knowledgeable Apple people" and that they're "the best place to test-drive and explore Apple products." In a telephone interview following my visit, an Apple official described the main classes of retail employees who are assigned to support both claims:

Concierges field "where-is-it" questions and direct customers to the right department. They're easy to spot in their bright orange shirts.

Personal shoppers -- probably the closest in function to the new Windows Gurus -- are available for one-hour appointments to help customers buy the right electronics. They usually wear sky-blue shirts.

Creatives provide customized personal training for all Apple products. Customers may take as many "One-to-One" training sessions as they wish in exchange for a $99 annual subscription fee. Creatives typically wear dark-blue shirts.

Geniuses have undergone extensive technical training at Apple headquarters. They run demos, provide advice, troubleshoot problems and handle repairs. Clad in black or dark-blue shirts, they're enthroned at each store's Genius Bar.

Those employees, and the culture they both create and represent, make visiting an Apple Store a genuine "retail experience." Even for a plain old PC.

Anne Stuart is executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner.

Despite the intensive prep work, actual Guru coverage will be rather thin, at least to start. The job listings for the Windows Gurus describe full-time jobs that include weekends. Covering the business hours of big-box retail outlets -- many open seven days a week -- would require several Windows Gurus per store. Best Buy had 973 stores in the United States as of Sept. 16. Circuit City had 714 stores as of Aug. 31. That's about one guru for every 11 of the chains' combined stores.

The site listed 67 store locations in 11 states and the District of Columbia where Microsoft is looking to fill Windows Guru positions. At least initially, many will fill posts in California, where the listing includes 26 locations. Florida has the next-highest concentration, with Guru jobs available in 11 locations. That's followed by New York (six communities), Virginia (five communities) and New Hampshire, New Jersey and Washington (four communities each). Massachusetts has two locations, while Maryland, Minnesota and the District of Columbia have one each.

Partners, For Better Or For Worse
Faced with its biggest crisis yet in getting consumers interested in an OS upgrade, Microsoft is responding with a wide-ranging strategy that plays to its traditional strengths. As far as the retail presence part of the strategy goes, comparing Microsoft's approach to Apple's illustrates key differences in the way the two companies operate.

Staples Provides Easy Button for Managed Services

Elsewhere in the retail world, Staples Inc. is taking its managed services provider (MSP) business mainstream.

The Framingham, Mass.-based office superstore chain quietly entered the MSP market in December 2006 with the unannounced acquisition of Thrive Networks, a 7-year-old, 250-customer MSP based in Concord, Mass.

Little growth has occurred with Thrive in the interim; Staples currently claims about 300 clients. But it appears that Staples' Contract Technology Solutions unit has been busy prepping the 60-person company's business model and leveraging its branding for a nationwide rollout.

In September, Staples launched Staples Network Services by Thrive. Initially there will be three services: Thrive Protect, Thrive Onsite and Thrive Online Backup.

Thrive Protect is standard MSP fare: anti-spam, anti-virus, anti-spyware, patch management, systems and network monitoring, and remote help desk. Staples promises cross-platform support, including Windows, Mac and Linux, for Thrive Protect customers.

Thrive Onsite will regularly send IT engineers to customer sites for face time. That service will only be available in Boston and Atlanta at first, but support for other major metro areas is planned.

Thrive Online Backup is automatic, incremental backup of PC and server data to a secure site over an encrypted connection. EMC Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass., will handle the storage on the back-end through its Mozy Inc. subsidiary.

Staples will market the small and midsize business-focused MSP offering through its network of 1,800 office supply stores in the United States and Canada. Staples reaches target customers every day as those customers come in to fill their offices from the Staples inventory of more than 7,000 products.

-- S.B.

When Apple wanted a retail presence, it opened the Apple Stores, which are 100 percent under the control of Apple. All the ideas come from Apple, all the employees work for Apple, all the products are made by Apple or approved by Apple. It's very similar to the way Apple shut down the clone-computer market in the early days and insisted on controlling every aspect of the Apple experience from the early 1980s on.

Microsoft, by contrast, is fitting its retail initiative into the existing operations of big-box retailers that are longtime partners with Microsoft, inheriting their strengths and hoping to correct weaknesses in product expertise on the store floor. Not only are the retail spaces operated by partners, Microsoft is turning to a partner, in this case Mosaic, to provide the Windows Gurus.

It's another example of the way Microsoft acts. Whether times are good or bad, going to market with partners appears to be in Microsoft's DNA. Whether the effort to light a fire under Vista sales among major retailers succeeds will depend in large part on the execution of Microsoft partners.