How Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 marketing push backfired

How Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 marketing push backfired

Summary: Can the Surface Pro 3 replace your Windows laptop? Probably. Can it replace a MacBook Air for a professional writer whose workflow is built around that device? Probably not. Unfortunately, Microsoft's key messages at last month's launch event encouraged reviewers to try exactly that, with predictable results.


It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

At the launch event for the new Surface Pro 3 last month, Microsoft positioned its new device as "the tablet that can replace your laptop." That's the tagline for its new TV ad as well.

At that same launch event and in its online marketing materials, the company provided aggressive and detailed comparisons to the 13-inch MacBook Air. Like this one, at the Microsoft Store pre-order page:


"It can replace your laptop."

"It's lighter and does more than the MacBook Air."

Those are two separate messages, but it's awfully easy to mix them up.

See also: The Ultimate Surface Pro 3 Reviews Roundup

And that's exactly what happened in the aftermath of the Surface Pro 3 launch, as Microsoft's marketers inadvertently targeted its first wave of tech reviewers with the message "This device can completely replace your MacBook Air."

They got back exactly what they asked for: a spate of first-person reports on the Surface Pro 3 by reviewers who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to use it in place of their trusted MacBook Air.

This isn't the Folgers challenge. ("We've secretly replaced Joann's MacBook Air with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. Let's watch what happens through our hidden cameras!")

You can't replace a professional writer's primary computing device, the one with which he or she makes a living, and expect them to be comfortable, much less productive. As a reader, you can't expect much that is directly applicable to your needs from a review that chronicles the personal experience of a professional writer—unless, of course, you are also a professional writer.

You can see the results in the compilation of 12 Surface Pro 3 reviews I've assembled: The Ultimate Surface Pro 3 Reviews Roundup. Not every reviewer took Microsoft's bait, but at least four did, with others mixing in elements of that theme. Most of the reviewers who tried ended up disappointed.

And that was completely predictable.

If you're already happily using a MacBook Air and iPad, the Surface Pro 3 is unlikely to tempt you away. Doing so would disrupt your entire workflow.

Here, for example, is the video still at the top of Katherine Boehret's review of the Surface Pro 3 at Re/code:


Notice that she is standing in front of an iMac, and sitting on the desk in front of that desktop PC is what looks like a stack of paper, with a pen on top of it. Not shown in the picture are the iPad and MacBook Air she refers to in the review itself. Collectively, that's at least $3000 worth of Apple hardware.

Katie's review is a catalog of frustrations, amplified by an apparent incompatibility between the Surface Pro 3's network adapter and the wireless access point in the Re/code offices. She complains about "rough edges" on a couple of third-party apps in the Windows Store, and criticizes the Surface Pro 3's "honking 12-inch screen," which "feels big and bulky."

Some of those criticisms are just an outright rejection of the Surface Pro 3 design. If you're a professional writer working for a high-traffic tech site, you will probably prefer a traditional laptop, with its rigid keyboard and base, to the Surface Type Cover, which is optimized for mobility. Other criticisms are a reflection of the pains anyone would feel when trying to switch platforms. If you're used to using Microsoft Access on a Windows PC, you'll be very frustrated when you discover that it's not included in the OS X version of Office.

But most of the readers of that review are not professional writers who spend their days in press conferences balancing a portable PC on their lap as they write 700-word posts on deadline. And if one of those readers has a tighter budget and a lower tolerance for juggling multiple devices, something like the Surface Pro 3 might be attractive.

The real target of Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 marketing campaign is the harried business traveler we have all seen (or been) at the airport. The one carrying around a three-year-old beat-to-crap Dell laptop that weighs five pounds or so, with a two- or three-year-old iPad alongside it in the travel bag.

Both of those devices are approaching the end of their useful life. Sooner or later, the owner of those two devices is going to begin thinking seriously about replacing one or both of them.

Add a $199 docking station (shipping in August) and an external high-resolution display ($400 or so) to the Surface Pro 3 ($1128 with Type Cover), and you've replaced your aging, slow mobile devices for less than $1800. The end product switches from desktop PC (which can use a full size keyboard and mouse) to laptop to tablet on the fly, and with the Surface Pen and OneNote it can also replace that stack of paper on the desktop. And it still runs the Windows apps you need for work.

For someone who's already invested in the Windows ecosystem, that proposition is likely to be worth considering. But you'd never know it was even a possibility from this review.

Of all the reviewers who took Microsoft up on this challenge, Mashable's Lance Ulanoff most clearly described the reason why it was doomed to fail for most reviewers:

Proclamations that Microsoft’s tablet-laptop hybrid, the Surface Pro 3, does not beat Apple’s popular MacBook Air grow tiresome. Since when is this a zero-sum-game? Are consumers and business people really choosing between one and the other, or is the reality somewhat more nuanced and based, as I suspect, on platform allegiances and desires?

Instead of simply replacing his MacBook Air with the Surface Pro 3 and expecting it to work in identical fashion, Ulanoff actually prepared for his two-week road test:

I also took Microsoft’s ‘no compromises’ promise to heart and prepped the Surface Pro 3 for its live-reporting task by installing all the key apps, extensions and plugins I would need for the next dozen-or-so days. On my Surface 2, I would never think to, nor could I, install Adobe’s Lightroom 4. The Surface Pro 3 is a true-blue Windows PC, so I didn’t hesitate — nor did the Surface. ... Over the ensuing days, the Surface Pro rarely disappointed me. It worked just like any other touch-screen Windows 8 PC.

But this was my favorite part:

It was entertaining to see how many people marveled that I was using Surface Pro 3. It was almost as if I was trying to type on a ferret. I had to explain that, yes, I was using it, and quite successfully thank you very much. Most of these doubters were, like me, MacBook Air users.

That, ultimately, is Microsoft's biggest challenge in marketing the Surface Pro 3. It's not for everyone, but it's definitely going to hit the sweet spot for some people. Getting the tech press to step outside of an Apple-centric bubble and imagine a world where people might choose a Windows laptop over a MacBook is the biggest challenge of all.

Maybe for the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft can include a stuffed ferret with every reviewer's guide. It certainly can't hurt.

Topic: Microsoft Surface

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  • Good luck with this:

    "Getting the tech press to step outside of an Apple-centric bubble"

    Not likely.....................
    • I agree

      this is a major problem with the tech press in general. An inability to realize that the vast majority of people who buy devices, do not spend most of their day on tech websites! Most consumers are simply not tech nerds.
      • Ferret

        Where can I buy a stuffed ferret? Maybe I could put a ferret sticker on the back of there Surface.
      • EXACTLY!!!!!!!!!!!

        You hit the nail on the head.

        Most tech-site reviews are, naturally, written by journalists/bloggers who's days are, naturally, spent typing. For this type of work, nothing will ever beat a large mechanical keyboard, and the MacBook does combine an excellent keyboard in a very small package. It's hard to beat.

        But what all these reviewers miss is that few outside their profession have such strict requirements from their keyboards. Galileo proved over 400 years ago that the universe doesn't revolve around the Earth, yet so many today seemingly believe it not just revolves around the earth, but them personally.

        For people who's job revolves around typing... the Surface was never meant for you. For people who just want to consume content... the Surface was never meant for you. But between those two extremes, there's an enormous market that the Surface can potentially be perfect. Not in every case, but no device is perfect in every case, so expectations that the Surface is/will/should be are flawed right from the start.

        The failure here is entirely on the part of the tech-press. By being utterly blind to any use case outside their own, they utterly fail their readers by not fairly reviewing a product which might very well serve *the readers* needs perfectly, simply because it doesn't serve *their* needs perfectly.
        • so what you're saying is

          "They're holding it wrong". Every poor review of the surface 3 has been written in the same way that most reviews for most other tech have been written. An apology here should be translated to an apology for reviews of switching from windows to osx, Linux, BSD, any tablet in general for day to day use, etc etc etc.
          The most telling line here is "It worked just like any other touch-screen Windows 8 PC."
          Basically, if you don't like windows 8(which many people have expressed that they don't), you won't like the surface pro 3. If you're comfortable with it, have the money to plunk down for it, the snap cover keyboard and any other accessory you need to make it function, then you might be the target audience. Doesn't seem like such a vast audience to me but that could be for the better.
          • Disagree...

            That reviews of the Surface have been written like those of any other product. Most/all reviews of other products, review within the context of what the product is. A budget notebook isn't panned in reviews for not being ultra-portable. A high-end ultrabook isn't panned for not being inexpensive. An iPad or Android tablet isn't panned for it's lack of productivity capabilities.

            But the Surface? If it's not thinner and lighter than an iPad, it's criticized for being a horrible tablet. If the keyboard isn't at least as good as an MBA, it's criticized for being a horrible laptop. It's expected to absolutely excel at every extreme - a standard which no other product is expected to live up to.

            Additionally, there's very few professions outside the tech-press industry that require significant amounts of typing while seated without a desk. I've used laptops for 20+ years and can probably count the number of times I've used mine on my lap on one hand. My wife uses a laptop full-time for her job, and she's never had to. So the blind focus on how well the Surface performs on one's lap is very specific to the reviewer's occupation, and not indicative of the market as a whole.

            As for Windows 8, that's really a separate issue. Of course if someone doesn't like it, or prefers another OS, then the case is largely closed. But here too, this is a criticism that wouldn't be made against any other product. It's a Windows system, of course it's going to run Windows. Have you ever read a review of a MacBook or iMac that panned it for running the MacOS?

            If you can accept the Surface's compromises at the extremes of tablet and laptop mode for the advantages it provides in between, it can be an excellent device. If you can't accept those compromises, then it simply isn't the right product for you, which is fine, but that in itself doesn't make it inherently flawed.
        • you're flat out wrong

          I have a Surface RT and all I do on it is surf the web and consume content. It is a content consuming BOSS! The reason I bought it was to consume content I couldn't consume on an iPad. Network file shares. Torrent sites. Its all so simple on Surface. You have to jump through hoops on an iPad, spend an exorbitant amount of money and you still might not be able to accomplish what you can on a Surface.
      • Its amazing how trends start. Sometimes.

        I think the one place where tech seem to have some regular kind of impact is starting, or at least assisting certain trends.

        The problem is, the tech witless public often gets caught up in the trends after a while and quite often they dont even know why...except its what "some friend" told them was the best idea. The some friend often being just someone whos one more link in the chain of tech witless public that leads back eventually to someone in IT who got caught up in a trend.

        Lets look at the "light laptop" craze. Firstly, we all know there are those out there, who may be yourself or others you know who find themselves needing to lug a laptop around a fair bit. We also know, when we go out and march around our cities and towns that what we see is people who seem to have smartphones with them are everywhere. Some tablets being lugged about from time to time and here and there you might notice that someone appears to be packing a laptop.

        Yet, just about every human I know has a laptop somewhere in the house, and/or at work. Huge numbers of people own a laptop of one kind or another now a days. A travel an awful lot of transit at times through a massive city, and one thing I don't see is too many people lugging laptops around; yes, here and there, but the vast majority of people of the hugest percent are not lugging these things around.

        Most sit at home on someone's desk or just the same at work in an office. They are laptops, so of course they are easily mobilized when required, which for the vast majority of people is not often. Of course, like I said there are certainly some who always seem to be luging a laptop around, but nowhere near the majority of laptops see their way out of a building where they are parked except on few occasions.

        Somewhere a number of years back, some bizarre over emphasis on lightweight for a laptop became some kind of general craze. Like, it seemed to suddenly become a trend that extreme lightweight for a laptop was a critical feature that a potential purchaser should always be prioritizing. And, sure, for the people who are lugging them about daily some distances, yes, indeed, lightweight is a critical feature one might expect to pay a premium for and even sacrifice some higher powered hardware to maintain lightweight at a high cost.

        But since when is extreme lightweight in a laptop such an important feature for so many people?

        Some smart people will immediately point out that its not. Well, we have now reached a stage where all we seem to talk about is how light a laptop is. The insides come after the fact. That's a rather funny perspective for a world where the majority of laptop owners don't have to lug their laptops between three or four distant locations a day. Its a very funny perspective for a world where many people hardly ever do much more than move their laptops from one room to another, and in some cases not even on a daily or weekly basis.

        Ive been in stores and heard sales people pointing out the lightweight of a certain unit explains the unusually high price for the unit, showing how although the unit right beside it cost less and has better hardware to a slight degree, but it weighs a significant amount more. The technically unsavvy are made to feel that the higher weight laptop, although better and costing less is some kind of an old style clunker made of wrought iron or something.

        Ive seen the folly of this kind of sales pitch a few times, particularly as we now live in a day and age where the right laptop will suffice for many to replace their desktop computer. A laptop is simply a smaller overall package that many see as a better fit for their surroundings in the home or office, and can be picked up and moved at a moments notice of be easily taken on a trip if needed. And sure, for everyone, lightweight is "nice". But, in the over all complexity of the decision making process of buying a new laptop, for how many people is it really the best idea to spend their hard earned money to "purchase" the very special feature of extreme lightweight?

        For many people, its mostly an expensive gimmick in their real day to day life. For many, its the idea that when they are flashing the new laptop around to friends and co-workers they can say, "look how thin and light this is", because its obviously striking just how light and thin laptops like the MacBook Air are. Its apparently hard for humans to say "so what?" Because most people after having such an ultralight laptop flashed around in front of them should be saying most of the time is "So what, whats in it and how much did it cost?".
        • Good point...

          About the purpose people buy laptops. As an artist, I need all the processing power I can get, so I buy/build high-end workstations for myself. But literally everyone else I know buys a notebook these days for general computing. Outside of being brought along on vacations, most site on a desk at home 24/7/365. This is why I think the fixation on typing with the Surface on one's lap is rather myopic.

          And I also agree that people should be more concerned about value than form factor - I would never spend $1000+ on an ultrabook when a comparably equipped standard laptop costs 1/3 that, at most.

          I did cringe at and criticize the Surface's price initially. But after carefully evaluating my needs and desires, I found the price to be somewhat reasonable. I did want to be freed from my desk, so I wanted something portable, but it had to be reasonably powerful. This ruled out cheaper Atom based tablets. I have little need for major typing, and desired a tablet form factor, so I literally ruled out the traditional laptop. I use (and dare say like) Windows, so anything Apple was out of the question. Lastly, I wanted to be able to sketch on the device itself, so the Surface's stylus was key - I actually would never have bought one without the pressure sensitive stylus.

          When I added up all that the Surface offered, it aligned with my needs and desires pretty much perfectly, so while I would have been happier paying less, I found that it's price was justified.
    • You *need* a Macbook Air to write?


      Does writing on an Macbook Air make the words more 'magical' or somthing?
      Seriously that is some real 'writer' BS.

      You'll be telling us next that you need Macs to surf the 'net next.

      Lord Minty
      • Re: You'll be telling us next that you need Macs to surf the 'net next.

        But you don't mind being told you need Windows to do anything on a computer, including surfing Internet?
        • Get real danbi.

          "But you don't mind being told you need Windows to do anything on a computer, including surfing Internet?"

          Who says that????????????????? Seriously??

          What complete moron would say such a stupid stupid thing?

          If there is someone, anyone that has the least shred of credibility left who ever said such a thing as you need Windows to do anything on a computer including surfing the net, they would have deep fried that last bit of credibility they had by saying something so ridiculous.

          It would be such a stupid thing to say I don't think anyone with any intelligence at all has ever made such a claim.

          I call "BIGTIME B.S." on danbi. Willing to spread an absolutely atrociously ridiculous lie to prove an anti- Windows point.

          That's why I just love the ABM crowd, they are willing to claim the moon is made of cheese and the earth is made of chocolate pudding if it would tend to show Windows has a problem.

          Chronic liars.
      • It's not really a need, but...

        Apparently, Apple makes the best laptops. Most people don't mind a keyboard that's just short of full sized, so when Apple makes the best, nearly full-sized keyboard on a laptop, people love it. The back-lit keys, light weight, decent travel, etc. all add up to a pretty compelling device.
        Additionally, you don't have to look very hard to find an Apple laptop with ALL of the premium features you're looking for in a laptop, as long as you opt for flash storage over THE WORST HDDs in history that Apple insists on using.
        • I hear you regarding the Apple HDD

          Had to go to the Apple Store yesterday to replace the HDD on my daughter's MacBook Pro. It was, as usual, very busy and I was told I would have to wait about an hour. So I sat down and pulled my Surface Pro out and started doodling using my pen and Fresh Paint. A few customers noticed and came over to see what I was doing and wondering how to get that 'app' on their iPad. When I explained that my tablet wasn't an iPad but a Surface Pro they actually reacted favorably. One lady, whose daughter was completely enamored of Fresh Paint, asked me where the Microsoft Store was. I told her they had one at the other side of town in Scottsdale Fashion Park. Then I heard my name called to the Genius Bar. I looked at my watch, only ten minutes of waiting! I pointed that out to the employee calling me and she said they had a cancellation. Five minutes later I had my part and was out the door. Then it dawned on me... Want to get through the line in an Apple Store quickly, bring a Surface along - LOL.
          The Heretic
          • Good story. Perhaps a wrong conclusion but good story.

            The Surface Pro is a fine hybrid. The first gen battery life was about a third of a MacBook Air (the 13" version) but it definitely would last five minutes powering a Surface Pro in an Apple store. Grin.
          • It could be the hat

            It maybe they moved you up the queue in the Apple store if you were wearing the same hat as in the picture becasue it was scaring customers. Still at least your daughter has the style to buy an Apple. You also did not mention you would not have had to queue in the Microsoft store for so long anyway?

            Only joking.

            For once I would almost agree with Ed but it's perhaps an even more important paradigm shift the market is going through. Much like the shift too each of us having our own computer we are now moving to an age where both desktops laptops and tablets will be used by people on occasions. Some users may have all three others two and fewer still just one device -then of course we have smartphones which have as much power as the desktop of some people have on their desk.
          • My MacBook Pro

            My daughter has it on permanent loan, she is only 14. The hat...well that was a dare and I won the bet.
            The Heretic
          • I hear you regarding the Apple HDD

            Love It!!! Great Story!
        • Oh, brother.

          Every feature you mentioned is present on a lot of non-Apple laptops.

          Do you work for Apple, or did you join the cult? ;-)
        • Apple vs Thinkpad Keyboards

          Have you try a Thinkpad keyboard? I have and have been better than my previous MBP and my current MBA. The only advantage I see on MacBooks are the trackpad. A part from that, Thinkpads are better notebooks.