i'm a mac I'm a pcThere’s something almost portentous about the news coming out on Friday the 13th, not to mention the day before Valentine’s Day. Microsoft, following Apple’s lead, will open its own line of branded retail outlets.

Microsoft briefly had a San Francisco store during the dot-com boom, which quickly folded. Apple Stores, meanwhile, are prospering and flourishing. Openings in new cities are eagerly anticipated events on the scale of major rock stars coming to town: people stake spots in line a day in advance, often spending the night on the sidewalk in anticipation of the doors opening. If Apple introduces a hot new product like the iPhone, the whole process repeats.

Here in New York, our three Apple stores are must-see tourist attractions. And they’re bound to be bustling on Valentine’s Day tomorrow – I keep seeing articles in mainstream media citing Apple stores as one of the top places to meet members of the opposite sex.

It’s hard to imagine that level of buzz around Microsoft’s brand. In fact, one article about the planned retail presence is running a poll to see what readers think of the concept. The current top response is “Who cares? I still won’t buy anything from them.”

Apple’s brilliant “I’m a Mac” campaign successfully captures two core values of the brand: it’s about tribes, and it’s about sex. Seriously, which one of those guys would you rather hang out with? Or go home with? And those values spill into Apple’s retail environment in spades.

Apple has also demonstrated an ability to meaningfully latch on to its customers’ cultural values. Take packaging, for example. The company has made a real commitment to reduce package waste and sell its products in nearly 100 percent recyclable (and recycled) materials.

Microsoft, meanwhile, was the focus of a near insurrection at SXSW last year when, as a top line sponsor of the event, it was giving away Silverlight, all 4MB of it, in a hefty plastic box tucked into thousands and thousands of delegate bags.

Now I’m not saying Microsoft can’t pull off the bricks-and-mortar retail thing (and retail leases are certaily getting to be a bargain). Maybe they will – and surprise us all.

It would be even more interesting, not to mention much more difficult, to watch Redmond innovate rather than once again follow the brand leader.