Touring Microsoft, Sony and Apple Stores on Windows 8’s Launch Day

When Microsoft launched Windows 8 last week, it was the culmination of a long wait. For most people, this was a very troubling thrust into the future. For better or worse, the operating system offering the touch-oriented Metro UI had arrived in the Windows environment.

No one is more excited about the launch than Microsoft. The company has launched pop-up holiday stores in malls across the US to promote the new OS and Surface RT. I had the chance to check in with one of these stores at the Aventura Mall in Miami, Florida.

The Microsoft team had set up a kiosk in the center’s aisle. When I arrived, there was a crowd of people watching the Surface for the first time. A large number of people lined up to claim their reserved tablet as well. Microsoft employees praised the virtues of Live Tiles from customer to customer and promised that more apps would be coming.

When I arrived, I was quickly referred by PR to the manager of the Microsoft Store, Kyle. He was in his Lumia 900-like cyan shirt what you’d expect from a Microsoft rep, but when pressed, he was refreshed. I asked him what was the main purpose of the pop-up store. He told me it was not a sale.

He immediately insisted that the sale was important, but it was a caveat. Kyle told me that the primary purpose given to him was to get people to touch the Surface and Windows 8. After that, he ditched the PR-speak quagmire altogether, “It’s about consumers who have a great experience with Microsoft that they may not have had in a long time.” My eyes widened. He said, “Yes, really.”

From there, I asked him to pitch me on Surface and Windows RT. This was my first experience with Surface. The hardware, as stated elsewhere, is beautiful and solid. The real attraction is the Touch Cover. The colors pop and the magnetic click emitted when attached to the surface is satisfying. There’s no way to adequately describe how thoughtfully designed the Touch Cover’s connection with the Surface is. Take it in your hand.

As impressive as I am about the strengths of the hardware, the software situation is a bit thorny. Windows 8 RT is buttery smooth. I didn’t detect any of the app slowdowns mentioned in the reviews in my reasonably brief hands-on. Watching Microsoft Word on a tablet was a touching moment. This machine is meant to work when needed.

Oddly, it’s the role tablets have traditionally filled that the Surface struggles with. It is not a device of conspicuous consumption. Netflix is ‚Äč‚Äčthere, as is the New York Times, Microsoft’s new Xbox Music service also checks out. But, and here are some big buts, no Facebook app. There is no Twitter.

There’s barely a dedicated anything app. Microsoft banged its head against this wall two years ago with Windows Phone. The level of success Microsoft has attracted developers to the Windows 8 Store depends on the fate of Surface RT and Windows RT.

The Surface wasn’t the only product at the Microsoft booth. There was the Asus Vivo Tab RT, a plasticky but still well made machine. If you’ve seen one of the Taiwanese company’s Transformers Android tablets, you’ve seen the Vivo Tab. The third touch-enabled product was the Sony Vaio T13. This ultrabook has been tested before, receiving good reviews, though most consumers have completely abandoned laptops to get their fingers on the surface. Most were affected.

On more than one occasion I heard an audible “Whoa!” Heard. From users who clicked into Touch and Type Covers for the first time. The simplicity of Windows 8 also appeared. I timed a kid who found his way from the Start screen to Cut the Rope in six seconds. On the less than rosy side, many consumers questioned how many apps were available.

No one was impressed by the 5,000 rep quoted, even looking a bit lame when asked about it. The portrait orientation for the Surface also raised eyebrows. Many noticed that the 16:9 orientation wouldn’t make the reading experience on the iPad as comfortable, let alone the smaller Nexus 7.

I spoke with Senad, a customer, software developer, and self-proclaimed Apple guy who played with the Surface for the first time. He admitted that he was impressed by the hardware, especially the Touch Cover. He noted that the hotkeys would make for a quick-running experience through the OS. More than anything, Senad said he was “happy Microsoft showed up to the party.”

I visited a few other stores in the mall. I also traveled to Apple Store and Sony Style Store. The Apple Store wasn’t at a loss for customers on the day of the Surface’s launch. His manager, when asked about the launch of Windows 8, could only give a standard “no comment”.

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