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Yet it's a good move by Microsoft. While success is never guaranteed, there's plenty of upside without tons of risk, at least for Microsoft.
So, uh, what's in it for us? Actually, there could be some nice upside for Joe and Jane Windows Customer. Even battle-tested IT pros -- some of whom might not be caught dead inside a Best Buy -- could stand to gain if the Windows Stores succeed.
The caveats: We're drinking from a glass that's half full, setting asides concerns in favor of potential payoffs. This presupposes at least three not-so-small accomplishments by Microsoft and Best Buy: First, a knowledgeable, professional staff that actually gives a you-know-what about the customer. Second, well-organized, well-stocked displays that showcase the best of Windows 8 and the hardware built to maximize its potential. And third, a genuine interest in matching the right device with the right user. And so on.
[ For more on Microsoft's retail plans, see Microsoft Launching 600 Windows Stores Inside Best Buy. ]
Microsoft stands to gain if these things happen. More importantly, so do Windows users -- here are four reasons why.
1. Reach Out And Touch Something.
Windows 8 asks users to fundamentally change how they think about and interact with their PCs -- or even what a PC is in the first place. If you replaced a XP laptop with a Windows 7 laptop, the leap of faith wasn't particularly long -- find the right mix of specs and price online, and you could safely click the Buy button without a lot of hands-on test-driving.
That's simply not true for Windows 8 and much of the hardware being built for it, which is largely predicated upon touching your screen. "Bah, it's no different than using your smartphone," some users might say. Yes, it is. As noted by Forrester analyst JP Gownder, the current technology retail experience leaves much to be desired, unless you're in an Apple Store. Successful Windows Stores will give customers an accessible, no-cost way to test-drive touchscreen PCs and many of the hybrid formats -- part tablet, part laptop -- coming onto the market.
2. Find The Right Device For Your Needs Before You Buy.
Similarly, the Windows Store experience should help customers sort through the dizzying array of hardware choices. Specifically, a successful Windows Store will help match the right device to the right use cases. Someone who mainly uses their device for light email and Web browsing has different needs from someone who's, say, starting a business out of their house.
Today, it's too tough for many people to make an informed, well-suited purchase decision. The fact that most employers aren't yet taking the Windows 8 plunge means individuals are largely on their own when it comes to learning the new OS and hardware options, too. And at current prices -- upwards of $899 for Surface Pro or well north of $1,000 for some other Windows 8 models -- making the wrong choice is an expensive mistake.
3. Test Your Favorite Tools In Windows 8.
The Windows Store gives Microsoft another physical venue in which to showcase and market newer applications like SkyDrive and Office 365 -- on newer hardware and its newest OS, of course. Similarly, the Windows Store should ideally enable users to test-drive their go-to applications on various Windows 8 devices before buying. For example: How does Gmail look and feel on this device compared to that one? How does the Windows app for Dropbox -- or any of its competitors -- compare with the Web-based interface? Screen sizes, keyboard vs. touch, native vs. Web and other factors are worth sorting through before plunking down serious money for new hardware.
4. For IT, It's Worth Keeping An Eye On.
The Best Buy-based Windows Stores are worth monitoring from a BYO standpoint, for starters. If successful, there'd presumably be an uptick in employee-owned Windows devices on the corporate network. The success scenario could produce a tangible -- if perhaps unscientific -- benefit, too. IT can offload some of the UI education and training to Microsoft and Best Buy. It essentially becomes an outsourced testing lab for users.
Maybe you've got no immediate plans to deploy Windows 8.x in your environment. But Microsoft has placed its bets; Windows is heading in this direction whether you like it or not. In a recent webinar for IT pros conducted by Lenovo and Insight, 78% of attendees said they had no plans to move to Windows 8 in 2013. Lenovo ambassador Frank Richichi wasn't surprised by that response, noting the Lenovo itself was both developing new products and form factors for the Windows 8 world while continuing to offer and support traditional business PCs. But Richichi advised keeping tabs on Windows 8's evolution even if you've got no plans to deploy it any time soon.
"When you all say you're not moving to Windows 8, that's not a thing to be afraid of -- but you do also need to be conscious of what's going on out there and what potentially is coming down the pipe," Richichi said. "If you look at it from a bring-your-own-device perspective, what you see is a lot of those devices are going to be rolling into your environments with Windows 8 on them. So whether you want to or not, you're going to have to deal with it."