How Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 marketing push backfired

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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