At midday today, Microsoft will throw open the doors on a multi-million dollar gamble to win the hearts and minds of Sydney's Windows users. This is what it's like inside the first Microsoft Store in Australia, and the first flagship retail store outside of New York. (56K warning: 20MB of images!)
In the middle of Sydney's Pitt Street Mall, the wraps will come off the two-storey, glass-fronted facade of 188 Pitt St, revealing the Microsoft At Westfield Sydney store. We took a look inside the day before its unveiling, and it's every bit as impressive as you'd expect from one of the world's biggest tech brands.
The first thing shoppers see when they walk through the Microsoft Store's big pair of floor-to-ceiling glass double doors is an open-plan room filled with dozens of laptops, 2-in-1 convertibles and tablet devices like the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. Unlike the similarly laid out Apple Store a couple of blocks away, ground floor shoppers are encouraged to sit and get to grips with the Windows laptops in front of them.
Most of the tables in the main area are divided roughly by brand or device; there's a section just for Surface tablets, a section for Surface Books, for the Microsoft Band 2 activity tracker. An entire table is devoted to Microsoft's major Signature Edition partner Dell, while there are also Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Lenovo laptops and convertibles on display across the aisle. No device is tethered by cable to its desk.
Centrally located at the rear of the lower level is the Answer Desk -- it's where shoppers will be greeted and directed to wherever they need to go, whether that's upstairs to a repair appointment, to find a specific brand or device, or for any other less common request. The Answer Desk will be staffed both by greeters and computer technicians, and Microsoft will virus-scan any PC brought through its doors.
There are hero podiums for Surface, Surface Book, and Microsoft Band throughout the lower and upper levels, and a massive 84-inch Surface Hub the the far right of the store greets Pitt Street entrants with anything from a high-res map view of Parliament House, to drawing demos, to a digital whiteboard. Each device has a placard with pricing. A bunch of Xbox One boxes, too, remind you what else Microsoft sells.
Off to the left of the Answer Desk is a section devoted to the Xbox One, with live game demos across the eight-screen video wall. The wall behind the Answer Desk, too, is made of video screens, and is a full two stories tall, with 30-odd displays linked together and displaying high-res video. To the right you'll find Windows and Surface accessories, Kate Spade fashion kit and a small Lumia break-out section.
Head up the stairs next to the Answer Desk -- they're glass! -- and you'll find the top level of the Microsoft Store in Westfield Sydney. (There's also a lift.) The top floor is a smaller version of the demo section, but also has a larger Answer Desk where longer service tasks like Windows upgrades, hardware troubleshooting and data transfers take place. You can even bring in a desktop PC and they'll help.
Off to the side of the top level is Microsoft's Community Theatre, where smaller workshops, demonstrations or more serious company or enterprise meetings can be held. The room can also be used for education -- Microsoft already has some STEM courses booked in. Upstairs is also the more serious Xbox One gaming space, and the Community Theatre also has some gaming PCs from Alienware.
The upstairs Answer Desk is primarily targeted at walk-ins off the street -- who'll be sent upstairs by the greeters -- but you'll also be able to book appointments, both in person and online. Of the 50 staff currently working at the Microsoft Store, about 40 are sales and 10 are dedicated service techs. Microsoft's ethos is to help anyone with a Microsoft-related query, no matter how arcane or niche it is.
And that means, yes, you can bring in a Windows 95 notebook or your iPad running Office 365 apps, and they'll help you out to the best of their ability. Microsoft is also touting the Answer Desk's affordability -- they'll do virus scans for free, for example, and any kind of basic consultation should be free too. It's only when hardware upgrades or a Windows purchase is necessary, for example, that you'll have to shell out.
Back downstairs, the right wall of the Microsoft Store in the Pitt Street Mall is wrapped by a long video wall -- there are 178 screen in total, with 38 different video feeds to choose from -- and is devoted to faster and more basic purchases like mice, keyboards and display adapters. Windows smartphones and Windows devices enjoy equal footing, and a demonstration of Continuum via a Lumia is also on show.
Both current and future Windows Phone devices -- including that Display Dock, which will convert your Windows phone into a low-powered PC complete with keyboard, mouse and monitor -- are on display, although you won't be able to buy one until "before Christmas". A bunch of different Surface Pro 4 Type Covers are on display, and you can also buy a Surface Pro 4 with a Bundle of gear at a bit of a discount.
The view from the Answer Desk downstairs covers the entire store -- which might be important considering that no device -- not even the Surface tablets -- are tethered to the tables, and so could be nicked by a particularly enterprising and particularly ballsy thief. Sales terminals around the floor mean staff can sell via their Windows smartphones rather than needing to queue at a single point of sale.
When the covers come off, that Microsoft logo will still take pride of place on the second level's glass facade, although a bit of natural light will help out the store's Green Star-rated adjustable LED lighting. Gizmodo was shown through the Gensler-designed store by Pip Marlow, managing director of Microsoft Australia, and store manager Nick Wells, as part of a media preview a day before the opening.
Microsoft expects a lot of fans through the door at midday as the covers are thrown off, and also wants to foster an atmosphere where Windows users can feel at home and relax, without high-pressure sales tactics forcing them to buy or leave. Free Wi-Fi, too, should be a significant attractant to the Pitt Street tourist crowd, who'll be gently introduced to the Surface brand of Microsoft-made, first-party devices.