What’s the next move for an underdog when the category leader starts following? Microsoft’s move into the retail world probably looks more like stalking than following to the folks at Apple. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not sure Apple is savoring the moral victory just now. The Apple Storeshave been a giant consumer hit since they first started appearing in 2001, and they have played no small part in re-igniting a brand that had lost its way. Apple has proven to be a deft retailer over the years, and has used the in-store experience to build a connection with its consumers that is the envy of the industry and instructive for marketers far beyond the computer category. Apple has used the environment to engage its loyalists and convert PC users. More importantly, Apple uses its smart geeky-chic employees to close and tighten the customer feedback loop. The innovative and unique Apple Store experience has provided the company with a long-held challenger brand advantage over much larger rival Microsoft who enjoys no such customer connection. But with this move Microsoft has effectively stolen the playbook from Apple. Microsoft is unapologetic about co-opting the entire Apple Store experience and re-branding it for its own purposes. A description of the new Microsoft store demonstrates what TheLondon Times calls “suspicious similarities to Apple’s stores” right down to the Microsoft “Answers Bar” a la Apple’s Genius Bar, where customers can get answers to technical questions. Frankly, I’m surprised it took Microsoft nine years to answer Apple’s retail challenge. I suppose that simply demonstrates the hubris that so often characterizes market leaders. So now the question for Apple is, “what next?” That remains to be seen, of course, but I’m betting if Steve Jobs has anything to do with it, Apple will deliver yet another game-changing innovation that will throw the market leader and the rest of the industry off its tracks. The people at Apple know what it takes to take on a market leader.