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Switched On: Rebooting retail in Redmond


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment. This week marks the second birthday of Switched On, which recently passed the 100-column mark.

If you love the iPod, you may delight in how long it has maintained its superiority over other digital music players. If you hate the iPod, you may bemoan how consumers have overlooked the superiority of other digital music players. But if you're in an Apple Store, you may simply wonder if there are any other digital music players.

Two years ago, the first Switched On column focused on whether the new iPod photo would yield a video-playing heir. That level of attention, though, was nothing compared to the treatment that the the product receives every day in the church of the immaculate gloss. Apple stores present rows of well-maintained iPods fresh from their announcement ready to be enjoyed with a variety of sample songs and connected to earbuds, headphones or speaker systems from Apple and others. Cases and car chargers dangle below colorful signs extolling the breadth of content available at the iTunes store. A knowledgeable, no-pressure staff is usually hovering to answer any questions about the product you might buy while support specialists can address issues with the one you may have bought.

Compare these point-of-purchase penthouses to the plastic cells inside the glass case jails in which many MP3 players often rot away their shelf lives. It's a safe bet that, for a high percentage of those who tried to a digital music player at retail prior to purchase, the iPod was the only such device they were able to experience hands-on even if they were open to alternatives.

Microsoft's Zune will charge onto this lopsided playing field next month. Zune hails from Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices group, which admirably developed Xbox 360 kiosks last year. But, while the Xbox's high-definition graphics provided visual impact for those who circled the displays, portable media devices require a bit more intimate getting-acquainted time. Should Microsoft follow the path of so many other consumer technology companies and open its own retail presence?

Two years before there was an Apple retail store or an iPod, it did exactly that with microsoftSF right in the heart of PlayStation country – Sony's Metreon in San Francisco. The store, with its 12 scattered sections including a "solution center featuring platform and development tools," flopped. But this was a Microsoft store that lacked not only Zune, but debuted years before the original Xbox. Indeed, in 2006, Microsoft today is the only one of the three major console companies that doesn't have at least one showcase store.

Seven years ago, Windows XP itself was still in the offing so Microsoft's "consumer" operating system was Windows 98. Sleek smartphones running Windows Mobile – such as Motorola's Q, the T-Mobile Dash and Cingular 3125 – were geek fantasies. The same was true for digital picture frames that integrated with Windows, backlit wireless keyboards, laser mice and GPS devices using Windows CE, such as the popular TomTom Go series. And what about Media Center? How often has it been demonstrated in a store's home theater setting, much less connected to an Xbox 360 in another mocked-up room?

Microsoft's consumer lineup today is far more compelling, sophisticated, media-rich and, with a growing group of hardware products, tactile than it was back in the 20th Century. The marketing strategy of Windows Vista -- with its various usage scenarios -- presents a nearly perfect foundation from which to structure showcase environments. The entertainment products that Microsoft wants to bring into the consumer's home would benefit from a home of their own.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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