Everyone reading this knows that Microsoft makes Windows and that the latest Windows version, Windows 7, is the most elegant and refined version yet. In the bad news department, everyone reading this also likely familiar with the fact that the Windows you get on a new PC often varies wildly from the Windows that Microsoft created. That is, PC makers bog down their machines with pointless and redundant utilities and other crapware, sabotaging the Windows experience and killing performance, efficiency and customer satisfaction in the process. This situation is bizarre, when you think about it, with Microsoft's best partners seemingly doing everything they can (on purpose or not) to undermine Microsoft's core product.

To my amazement, Microsoft is finally doing something about it. Through a relatively stealth product group that operates outside the Windows division, the company is doing things you have a probably never heard of. That is, Microsoft is selling PCs directly to consumers, both online and in its retail stores, and it is doing so at prices that are very competitive with other PC sellers. These PCs are the PCs you're familiar with, from all the major PC makers, but optimized for performance and efficiency, and not bogged down with junk. They are, in other words, the PCs you and other PC users expect to get when they buy a new machine ... but almost never do.

It started with Kevin Eagan, who was heading up Microsoft's OEM business, dealing with PC makers, during the Windows Vista years. And what Microsoft was seeing internally with Vista was not what customers were seeing on their new Vista-based PCs. By this time, PC makers weren't making a lot of money on their products on a per-unit basis unless they loaded them up with crapware. This disappointed a lot of people, and even though Vista was a huge foundational advance for Windows, users didn't get it. To them, Vista was a bomb: Slow and unwieldy.

Things got better with Windows 7, of course. By this time, Microsoft has fine-tuned its client OS to the point where it performed better on the same hardware than did its predecessor--a first, by the way--and the company felt it had the best PC experience, bar none, better even than Apple. But because Microsoft doesn't control the end-to-end experience on the PCs users buy, there were numerous parties--not just PC makers, but also those companies' own partners--standing between the "pure" Windows 7 experience Microsoft offered and what users received.

"So we pitched the idea internally, codenamed Foundation, of orchestrating the best end-to-end PC experience we could," Eagan told me. "We were realistic about the economic environment, and of course there could be regulatory issues too.  We wanted to match the best PC hardware we could find with deep testing with the OEMs and offer them insights into what we found out about their systems. This became the Velocity program."

Velocity helped PC makers understand the impact of software additions to their machine's boot times and overall performance. And when combined with deep market research that strongly highlighted that crapware significant detracts overall customer satisfaction with PCs, Microsoft had what it thought was overwhelming evidence they could provide to PC makers in an effort to get them to change their ways, and not sacrifice long-term customer relationships for a quick buck.

PC makers signed on, too. Lenovo, for example, has been selling what it calls "Lenovo Enhanced Experience" PCs, which are the result of implementing the findings from the Velocity program. According to the company, these PCs offer "three key benefits: fast system boot and shutdown, rich multimedia capabilities and easy system maintenance." (My own ThinkPad SL410 happens to be one of these PCs.)

"Customer satisfaction is job one," Eagan told me. "Nothing else matters. We don't want people to lose their passion for the PC."

So Eagan and a few others turned to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, COO Kevin Turner, and the board of directors. The goals were simple: Microsoft should get into the retail business, and get on the front lines with customers. The stores could be used as a living lab for the company, a way to gauge firsthand what customers thought about its efforts. These stores could sell PCs, from all the major PC makers, outfitted with Microsoft's ideal software configuration, and use the experience to influence the ecosystem, get PC makers to see what works and what doesn't. "We can innovate and then share with OEMs," he added. "Show them this can be a profitable business, by delivering total customer satisfaction."

Amazingly, Ballmer agreed. And what became the Signature team started delivering the products and services they would sell through the stores, slowly at first but more broadly over time. Listen to customers, and react. Improve over time.

The core tenets of what became Signature evolved rapidly. The company would develop Signature images that it would install onto PCs in lieu of the PC makers' own images. These images would have none of the bloatware that bogs down mainstream PCs, so Microsoft could deliver PCs it could stand behind. Offer customers a service guarantee that doesn't obviate whatever services the PC makers provide, but instead stands in front of it.

Microsoft informed the PC makers about the plans in advance. As expected, some weren't thrilled initially. But the software giant argued, successfully, that Signature PCs would in fact help the PC maker brands, decrease return rates, and increase customer satisfaction.

"To our delight, even the most skeptical became partners," Eagan said. "Everyone. All major PC makers. They all did. And they wanted to know what we learned."

There was a lot to learn.

As Microsoft evaluated the PCs as shipped from its PC maker partners, some obvious patterns emerged. PC makers were offering a confusing array of duplicate middleware applications, with extra, superfluous DVD players and Wi-Fi interfaces being the most common. They were able to pinpoint particularly unreliable hardware components using the built-in error reporting mechanisms in Windows. Most PCs were shipping with trialware, especially for anti-virus and security solutions, and the trial subscriptions for these solutions had dwindled over time, with most new PCs only offering 2 months of protection out of the box.

So the Signature story today basically involves two pieces, the retail and online stores, and the Signature PCs that contain Microsoft's streamlined Signature images. And these pieces constitute an interesting "chicken or the egg" situation, where each relies on the other and both need to grow for the entire solution to become more accessible to customers.

Microsoft's retail efforts

When Apple started its own retail efforts several years ago, pundits decried the move and predicted disaster. After all, Gateway's own retail stores were rapidly failing in the marketplace at the time, and it wasn't clear why consumers would gravitate to Apple's expensive product lines. Years later, Apple's strategy was proven correct: The company now has physical locations where customers can see and touch the products and an upsell strategy that spans from low-cost iPods all the way up to crazy-expensive Mac laptop and desktop PCs.

Microsoft has discussed possibly entering the retail space for years, but always balked, most likely out of fears of upsetting its retail and PC maker partners, both of which sell computers directly to customers while Microsoft played a supplier role. But with the advent of the Signature program, Microsoft has finally jumped into retail, and it now offers several physical store locations, largely on the West Coast of the US, as well as its own, little-known  e-commerce site, store.microsoft.com.


Microsoft's online store.

So far, Microsoft has moved slowly into retail, learning along the way, but the company says it plans rapid expansion this year and going forward. (It wouldn't comment on those plans more specifically.)

If you're familiar with Apple's own retail stores, you get the idea. But the differences between the two stores are interesting. Where Apple's stores are stark, overly-lit operating room-like and antiseptic experiences, Microsoft's stores by comparison are open, warm, and welcoming. There really is a big difference between the two, and it can be seen, starkly, by visiting a mall or other location where both stores exist. I visited the Bellevue, Washington location in December, for example, and was surprised by how nice it was. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much.


The Bellevue Microsoft Store (credit: Microsoft)

"It's not Signature alone that is generating enthusiasm with customers," Eagan told me. "It's the way our stores sell. The people we hire. The deep investment in training, which is four weeks long. Our liberal return policies. Our tech support policies. The Answer Desk \\[Microsoft's response to Apple's Genius Bar\\], which is there to support customers in person, and at no charge if the issue can be solved in a certain amount of time."

The Microsoft Store sells an evolving selection of PCs, from all the major PC makers, and these PCs are identically, from a hardware-perspective to those you'd purchase at any electronics retailer, or directly from the PC maker. (As with any retailer, Microsoft can't however offer the wide range of customization options one gets from a PC maker's web site, so it instead offers the most popular configurations.) The PCs are price competitive, meaning that there is little or no difference between an identical PC purchased from the Microsoft Store or another retailer, at least from a hardware perspective.

The stores also offer an hour of training from a real person for $99, with topics ranging from networking to Office to remote media streaming.

Currently, there are eight Microsoft retail stores, in Scottsdale, Arizona; Costa Mesa, California; Mission Viejo, California; San Diego, California; Lone Tree, Colorado; Oak Brook, Illinois; Bloomington, Minnesota; and Bellevue, Washington. And again, more are coming, on an ever-faster timeline. "There will be quite a few more in the future," Eagan told me vaguely.

Until then, there's the online store as well. And Microsoft is also building services that it hopes will replicate much of the physical store experience in that online store. In the future, it hopes to offer some form of Signature service that will let existing PC users "Signaturize" their PC online, removing crapware and improving performance. The company is also looking at how it can offer this service through other retailers and, of course, via PC makers.

Eagan is hopeful.

"We're looking for radical customer satisfaction," he said. "This has to be a flagship experience."

Microsoft Signature: What it is, why you want it

Looking at Microsoft Signature specifically, what Microsoft has created is a service that is exposed through purchasing a new PC from Microsoft, on which the company has installed a clean copy of Windows 7, all of the appropriate drivers for the hardware type in question, very real performance tuning, a suite of useful Microsoft applications and services, optimized versions of certain applications and experiences (like Internet Explorer), and more.

Put another way, Signature attempts to duplicate the experience that many power users go through when they purchase a new PC, but without any of the work. That is, they may boot up the default PC maker-installed version of Windows just to see it (and perhaps mock it), but then they simply blow it away and install their own clean version of Windows on it instead, adding things like Windows Live Essentials, Office, and so on.

Like many others, I do this all the time. And it's a lot of work, especially for some hard-to-identify hardware components that need drivers. It's also very time-consuming, and blowing away a new PC in this fashion and then doing your own clean install often takes the better part of a day. And at the end of this process, there's no guarantee that you got everything right: You may have a less-than-ideal driver for a key component, or whatever. It's probably cleaner than the PC maker image. But in some ways, it may actually be less complete as well.

Signature offers improvements across the board, and when you think about it, who could possibly know more about correctly installing Windows and all the related drivers and software most people would want than Microsoft? It's the type of thing that Microsoft engineers, like any other power user, do for family members. Only now they're offering it as a service.

The improvements are widespread when compared to stock PC maker configurations. According to Ken Fowles, Microsoft's Signature Samurai, most Signature PCs boot in two and a half to three minutes during the first boot, or "out of box experience." "At four minutes, we start to get worried," Fowles said. Compare this figure to an average of 29 minutes for the PCs Microsoft has tested in its Signature labs.

After setting up the PC, users should see a 50 percent reduction in boot time, Microsoft says. Same thing with S3 sleep: 50 percent less. Resume is a bit harder to see dramatic results with since Windows 7 alone contributed to a massive reduction in resume times, from an average of sub-8 seconds with Vista to sub-2 seconds in the new OS.

There are tons of tiny optimizations in the Signature images as well, Fowles told me. Windows Live Photo Gallery has a number of popular (non-Microsoft) online services enabled by default, for example. Spell checking is enabled in Windows Live Mail. And there's no proxy configured in Internet Explorer 8, leading to faster load times.

Less clear, at this point, is the value of Signature Premium, a premium membership service that costs $99 a year and provides additional features, including LoJack-based theft recovery functionality for laptops, one-year of comprehensive PC tech support, one in-store training session of your choice, and some other features. I suspect that Signature Premium is going to evolve and improve over time as well, but the big sticking point right now, I think, is that it really only becomes beneficial when you have physical access to a Microsoft retail store. And that's just not the case for many people right now.

Putting Signature to the test: Focus group

Microsoft Signature is the sort of thing I'd want to write about regardless, but Microsoft offered me an interesting opportunity: How would I like to conduct a focus group, consisting of at least 20 people who would test Signature PCs and PC maker-configured PCs side by side? The company was interested in an independent assessment of the success of the Signature service, and whether real consumers would be swayed by the design decisions the company made.

I agreed, and in early January, over 40 people participated in the focus group over two days at the nearby Dedham Hilton. Many of the participants were listeners of the Windows Weekly podcast, but to more evenly test the service between techies and non-techies, I asked participants to bring their spouses or partners as well, and made sure there was a good selection of average consumers by soliciting participation from mostly non-technical people I knew in the area. One-third of the participants were women.


Signature focus group, Dedham Hilton (January 2011)

Based on my previous introduction to Signature, which included meeting Kevin, Ken, and other members of the Signature team, a tour of the Signature labs on the Microsoft campus, and a visit to the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, I expected the feedback to be mostly positive. What we saw in the focus group, however, was eye-opening, and even more positive than I had anticipated.

We had the study group participants walk through a series of tests using sets of identical PCs, one of which was configured with the Signature image and one which contained the default PC maker image. Participants examined the out of box experience, the configuration of the desktop, taskbar, and Start Menu, Internet Explorer, security software, and various aspects of PC performance. They were also asked to rate the PCs generally, picking their overall preference.

After the focus groups were over, I also performed these and other tests on the collection of test PCs, which involved seven different configurations from six major PC makers. Six of the seven were laptops, while the seventh was an all-in-one desktop PC.

Here's what we found.

Out of Box Experience (OOBE). This was the most dramatically positive experience, with all 41 participants choosing the Signature PC as the superior experience. And there's little wonder why: In addition to requiring far fewer steps to walk through during the initial Setup experience--five for Signature PCs vs. eight or more steps for the OEM PCs--the amount of time it took to get from the end of interactive Setup to a working desktop was far less on Signature PCs than it was on the default configurations. In fact, it was an average of 5 times as fast for Signature PCs. Think about that: Not half again as fast. Five times faster.

Windows desktop. Once the PCs were up and running, participants were asked to rate the Windows desktop. On the Signature PCs, there was only a single icon, for the Recycle Bin, whereas most PC makers litter their product's desktops with shortcuts for applications and trialware apps. Additionally, Signature PCs are configured with the animated Bing wallpaper, whereas OEM PCs typically use a logo'd static application. In this test, over 94 percent of participants chose the Signature PC. A handful of people found value in the desktop icons, however, with one noting that it made it feel like the PC came with more built-in applications.


Typical OEM desktop experience with multiple shortcuts and lots of applications popping up over time.

My take on this was that most PC makers took a decidedly old-fashioned approach to advertising bundled applications to the user. In Windows 7, there are more modern (and less cluttered) ways to do this, including pinning shortcuts to the taskbar and Start Menu.

Start Menu. Focus group participants were asked to rate the Start Menus on each PC. The Signature PCs included simpler, more organized configurations while many of the OEM configurations were littered with folders and shortcuts. Over 81 percent of participants preferred the Signature PCs' Start Menus to those of the PC maker configurations. But as with the desktop, some saw promise in a more fully stocked Start Menu. And on at least one tested PC, the addition of extra games was seen as a plus.

In my opinion, this is really a question of quality vs. quantity and the Signature PC configuration was cleaner and simpler and offered no crapware, trialware, or redundant third party applications.

Internet Explorer. Participants examined the Internet Explorer 8 configuration, which on Signature PCs included mostly subtle additions through Favorites Bar shortcuts, built-in accelerators, Bing integration and so on. Almost 89 percent preferred the Signature configuration over that from the PC makers, though it should be noted that many were actually ambivalent about IE in general. Several noted, unasked, that they would prefer using a different browser or at least be given the choice. (And some PC maker machines did include an alternate browser, such as Chrome.)

This is a difficult configuration for me to rate. I do agree that some choice would be preferable, but on the other hand it may be somewhat unreasonable to expect Microsoft to ship PCs directly to consumers with a non-IE browser. That said, the Signature PCs do hint at how an optimized IE can work, and as Microsoft moves forward to IE 9, this will likely become less controversial.

Security software. Focus group participants were asked to rate the security software solution bundled on each PC. On the Signature PCs, this was Microsoft's free Security Essentials (MSE) solution. PC makers typically bundled a trialware version of a full security suite (McAfee, Norton, etc.) and in most cases these suites were time limited to just two months. 85 percent preferred the Signature PC configuration to the OEM configuration.  For some of the dissenters, MSE was simply an unknown quantity, while some were more familiar with the security suite brands.


OEMs offer trialware security solutions.

I've been a user and advocate of MSE since the first version was in beta, and it protects all of my PCs. MSE is fast, light, and effective. It's also free, and free forever with no upgrade or re-subscription pop-ups. I suspect MSE's approval rating would have been even higher if more people were familiar with it.

Performance. Focus group participants were asked to rate the sleep, resume, and shutdown times of the tested PCs. Because of the lab configuration needs, they were not able to test startup times (since restarting the PCs would have reimaged them), so I tested those on each PC set myself. I also examined the number of running services and processes on the PC sets. From a performance standpoint, over 79 percent of participants preferred the Signature PC configuration, though many noted that the differences were minor. In fact, many people wrote in "no preference" even though that wasn't a choice.

In my own more exhaustive tests, six of the seven Signature PC configurations outperformed the OEM PC configurations handily and the seventh was a virtual tie. Overall, Signature PCs outperformed the stock PC configurations. These PCs also had significantly fewer services running at idle when compared to OEM PCs: An average of 55 for Signature PCs vs. 78 for the OEM PCs. (What's missing, of course, is some ongoing performance monitoring solution that will keep these numbers comparatively low.)

Overall preference. At the end of the test, participants were asked to determine which of the PCs they preferred overall. Here, over 95 percent of participants, or all but two, chose the Signature PC configuration. Participants overwhelmingly preferred the Signature configurations and rated these PCs faster, better, and more enjoyable overall. One tester noted they would pay extra for a Signature configuration. Comments about the OEM configurations ranged from negative to unprintable.

There's no doubt that the tested Signature PCs were preferable, overall, to the OEM configurations. Signature PCs are quicker and easier to set up and use, offer cleaner operating environments, and provide better integration with Microsoft's associated products and technologies. Signature PCs perform, on average, far better than OEM configurations, in the initial set up of the machines and in ongoing, power management-related activities. The initial services load on Signature PCs is also considerably lower than that of OEM PCs, which should have a positive long-term impact on overall performance.

(I did not test or use Signature Premium.)

Looking ahead

While I've separately provided more detailed results and recommendations to Microsoft, I can tell you that these PCs are often dramatically superior to their stock counterparts. But there are negatives, and hopefully Microsoft can address these going forward. There aren't enough Microsoft retail stores, for example, and I think that most customers would prefer to see and touch PCs before buying. Yes, you can buy them online, but that obviates many of the in-person benefits you'd get from being able to visit a physical location.

But Signature is such a huge improvement over what the PC makers are offering that I'd like to see PC makers offer these configurations, at least as an option. And expanding the availability of Signature PCs to other retailers, like Best Buy, would help as well.

There's also the fear that Signature will become too successful and get consumed by the Windows Division. The complexities of Microsoft's PC maker relationships are hard to fathom, but let's just say that the Windows Division may be leery of Signature making its partners look bad and seek to put a stop to it. That would be shameful.

With regards to selection, what's available at any given time in a retail Microsoft Store or online varies from time to time. You'll never get the same level of choice you'll find from the PC maker web sites, and there's no way to configure individual features. That's going to be a problem for many power users.

Signature is also a US-only venture for the time being. So it's not just limited to a handful of retail stores and the online Microsoft Store, it's limited to US customers only. I have to think that Microsoft's customers around the world would want this service too. And in many areas, PCs are simply much more expensive than they are in the US; in such places, a highly tuned offering would be particularly well-received, I bet.

Limitation aside, what I keep coming back to is very simple: Microsoft Signature provides a very Mac-like PC experience that is vastly superior to anything offered by any other retailers or directly from the PC makers. And you need to know, at the least, that it's an option. I think you're going to like what you see a lot, and if you are lucky enough to live near a Microsoft Store and find a PC configuration you want, Signature is a no-brainer. My next PC is going to be a Signature PC, that's for sure.