Have Microsoft’s Surface Pro vs. MacBook Air TV ads worked?

I have been watching the current crop of Microsoft’s TV ads that pit the Surface Pro against a MacBook Air with great interest. They also have one that shows the Lenovo Yoga vs. a MacBook Air although the majority of the ones I have seen in the last few weeks highlighted the Surface Pro. At the very least, these ads are clever. However, has it actually swayed any prospective MacBook buyers to switch to the Surface Pro? 

It is probably too early to tell if there is many switchers but if you look at the channel numbers for MacBook’s in general and the MacBook Air specifically, it does not seem to have had any impact as of yet. In fact, Apple saw demand for Mac’s go up about 1 million more units in the last quarter over the same time period a year ago and their laptops had the bulk of this growth. My friend Walt Mossberg over at Re/code just did a great piece entitled “The Mac’s Second Act-From Obscurity to Ubiquity” which highlights the fact Macs can be seen everywhere these days and seem to outnumber Windows PCs in a lot of places.

This is especially true on college campuses. I recently spoke to a large class in which every student had a laptop on the desk in front of him or her. Of the 100 or so students in the room, I only saw two Windows laptops — the rest were Macs. I also observed something similar when on a long plane ride recently. As I walked back to the restrooms in the rear of the plane I counted how many people where using laptops. Of the 33 people using them, 25 were Macs.

Just a short 15 years ago, Windows PCs and laptops dominated the marketplace and Macs were rarely seen outside of schools and some graphically focused businesses. Today they are everywhere. They are even the dominant laptop used in TV shows and even if they cover up the Apple Logo, Apple’s designs are so unique you know they are using a Mac as part of a TV show prop. To be clear, Mac’s represent only 6% of the PC market and Windows PCs still dominate the overall market. But what Apple has achieved with the Mac is really incredible given the fact Macs have premium pricing over PCs and yet they still sell in big numbers.

The product that really pushed Mac sales forward is the MacBook Air. In fact, Mossberg states, “Now I believe it’s the best line of computers on the market, and I consider one model in particular — the thin, light and rugged MacBook Air — to be the best consumer laptop ever made.” In fact, the MacBook Air has become the gold standard in laptops and all PC vendors are innovating around this same basic design. Of course, Apple has the advantage of controlling the entire ecosystem of hardware, software and services, while the OEMs who are trying to design competitive laptops have to use Windows, which is the same OS on every PC model shipped, which makes it hard for these OEMs to actually differentiate at the OS and UI level.

Trying to compare a Surface Pro to a MacBook Air is challenging at best for Microsoft and their partners. While highlighting the touch screen and tablet angle is valid, our research shows most people want the clamshell design of laptops and, for many, the MacBook is the best they can buy. In fact, this highlights one of Microsoft and Intel’s overall challenges when it comes to what they call 2 in 1’s or convertibles.

I recently had a meeting with top officials in one of the major PC companies and asked them about their position on 2 in 1’s and convertibles. They told me they believe they need to have one or two models of these designs in their overall line up but the majority of what they will create and bring to market will still be clamshell based. They pointed out they are not seeing any real demand for these in IT yet and only slight interest by consumers. One reason the interest in something like Surface Pro is low is because of its price. They are two to three times the price of a cheap laptop.

Unless the Surface Pro is targeted at field service or as a replacement for those who use clipboards, I believe IT interest will continue to be soft at least for the 2 in 1 detachable. Lenovo tells me they have actually done well with their Yoga convertibles, especially in enterprise accounts, however it is still a minority when it comes to the total number of clamshell laptops they ship each year.

It will be interesting to see if these ads will have any impact on MacBook Air sales this holiday season but my gut sense is it will not have any impact at all. In fact, I believe Apple will have its largest quarter ever, which includes record sales in iPhones and Macs, with MacBooks continuing to be the lion’s share of Macs sold during the calendar 4Q for Apple.

If so, Microsoft is about to waste a lot of money on ads targeting the MacBook Air this holiday season.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

47 thoughts on “Have Microsoft’s Surface Pro vs. MacBook Air TV ads worked?”

  1. Microsoft seems quite happy to pump money into futile pursuits endlessly. The Surface and Nokia are two examples.

  2. I really hope the Surface Pro forces Apple to innovate hard in an iPad Pro. I would love to see an iPad Pro with a Wacom style tablet and pressure sensitivity and the ability to plug it into my MacBook Pro via Thunderbolt to use it as a portable, battery powered secondary display (the ability for OS X to utilize the GPU in the A8 as the driver for that secondary display would be a huge bonus)

    1. I think we’ll get there eventually, but I doubt it will happen all at once. The strength of the iPad is the modular nature of the device, it really is a Many-in-One. A larger screen iPad is a natural evolution, and we’ll get more and more computing power as well as more and more accessories that can turn the device into so many things. I am eagerly awaiting my 13 inch iPad.

  3. “[Macs] are even the dominant laptop used in TV shows”

    I wonder how much of that is paid product placement. I have seen clips of shows that look very much like an Apple produced commercial.

    1. Apple doesn’t pay to have their products in TV and movies, that’s why they don’t show the logo. Macs have been the dominant computer product in TV for years.

      1. Not exactly. When you see the logo covered, it means Apple wouldn’t pay whatever the show wanted them to pay for the placement. But when you do see the logo, that doesn’t automatically mean Apple traded product for it. A great example is the TV show “Seinfeld”. There was a Mac (it changed to the latest and greatest at the beginning of each season) on Jerry’s desk. But the character never actually used it (Jerry Seinfeld famously dislikes computers). But Apple didn’t pay or trade for the placement. The set designer simply liked Macs and put them in the shot.

        1. You never saw any identifying logos on Jerry’s Macs. It was obvious they were based on their appearance, but you never saw a logo.

          1. No, the logos were too small on all Macs of that era. But they weren’t blocked. I interviewed the set designer so I know where the story comes from. 🙂

          2. I didn’t say they were covered, I said you never see them. There were some obvious product placements on the show, but this wasn’t one. That’s why you don’t see any identifying logos.

      1. Yes they do. Some shows do have “Promotional Consideration by Apple” at the end in the small print. As others have said, seeing Apple in the show doesn’t mean they paid but sometimes they do. When you see MS, it’s almost always placed and paid for. Usually embarrassingly blatant.

    2. And then there are the shows with laptops with a backlit Windows logo – something that does not even exist in the real world.

  4. Just a monday nit??? You stated “To be clear, Mac’s represent only 6% of the PC market and Windows PCs still dominate the overall market. ” yet your next paragraph seemed like you were talking about domestic occurrences. I thought the US share was higher than 6%?

          1. No less an authority than Steve Ballmer said that tablets are computers. So by even Microsoft’s logic, Thorntondw is correct.

          2. But IDC and others count Windows tablets as PCs. That is, SP3 is a “PC”. But iPad is a “tablet”.

            Go figure.

  5. I would be interested to see an estimate of SP3 sales compared to MBA. I don’t know how many switchers the ad created, but I do think it does a good job of positioning the SP3. For all the negative “it does two jobs, neither well” press the Surface has gotten, it is a decent response from MS. It really subjugates the tablet function, which from what I hear is accurate. Apparently even the window min/max functions aren’t touch enabled in most apps.

    I don’t think Apple is being pressured by the SP3 at all. Maybe by the time the SP4 or 5 comes out they might start to feel it… or not.


    1. They can advertise all they want, they just don’t have the right product. SP3 compares very poorly to dedicated tablets in battery life, weight, apps and price. It’s a much better comparison to the Macbook Air, but for a machine with the same specs, its more expensive. Although it has a far superior screen and touch screen ability, the Air has a far superior keyboard and track pad. They advertise the touch screen as THE killer feature, but as Tim pointed out, consumers have not been receptive to that feature. Nice product, but not in the right competitive position.

  6. I think Microsoft’s Surface Pro ads are actually helping to sell MacBook Airs. Microsoft’s ads for Bing, Windows Phone and Surface RT surely didn’t work for them but very well may help the competitors their ads highlight.

      1. Yes, but the “I’m a Mac” commercials were promoting the entire Apple product lineup in contrast to Windows. They spoke to convenience, security, etc. In contrast, the Surface is a single (very expensive) product. Surface has to compete against vastly cheaper Windows hardware products in addition to the Macbook Air it is trashing in the commercials. Even if the commercials succeed in making the Macbook Air look limited, the typical viewer won’t be compelled to buy a Surface.

        Also, Surface is obviously attached to Windows, and the touch features in the OS are painfully inelegant. I still believe that Windows 8 was one of the greatest strategic blunders in corporate history. The user interface is so disorienting to casual users; I personally switched from Windows 7 to Mac because I figured the friction of learning the new OS would be roughly equal between OSx and Win8.

        My son uses a Windows tablet for school (4th grade). It is a Dell product, but it is a 2-in-1, not a clamshell. He thinks that touch is really cool, but never chooses to use his fingers when the keyboard is attached…which is pretty much 100% of the time.

  7. I am surprised that Satya Nadella is still pouring money down the hardware drain. He should be shutting down the Surface Pro and Windows Phone and use the money on his plan for Microsoft’s future.

    1. Surface Pro is getting MS a net profit. Windows Phone is fully funded by Android royalty payments. Not sure why Nadella would want to get rid of two self-sufficient product lines.

      1. Microsoft would continue to receive royalties from Android without the Windows Phone. So that makes it difficult to call Windows Phone self-sufficient.

        1. I may have used the wrong terminology by saying Windows Phone is self-sufficient. It is actually wholly funded by Android. So Microsoft can afford to keep Windows Phone and play the long game since they are not spending any of their own money.

      2. Surface Pro is absolutely losing money. The single-digit gross profit is being more than lost in the near infinite market and product-placement spend.

        1. I give you that. But for a niche product, that supposedly nobody wants, these are pretty good returns. They will only get better once availability expands to more markets.

  8. I’m a bit interested in Surface sales in different countries. Specifically, I’m seeing quite a few Surfaces in cafes in Japan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are selling quite well here.

    From our viewpoint in Japan, the US has always been a laggard in small and light laptops. I was constantly amazed at how the people from the US were lugging around huge corporate-issued 15-inch laptops, while we were mostly using thin and light devices like the Vaio. We hated it when the IT-department of US-owned companies forced these monsters onto us. Remember that the Powerbook 2400c was initially only available in Japan.

    My sense is that US corporate IT departments are a lost cause for premium laptops that are thinner and lighter. Microsoft might find better luck in Asia.

  9. I remember seeing the presentation by Microsoft executive (forgot his name), when Surface Pro was introduced. It was such an irony. Almost all in the audience were taking notes on their Macbook laptops. One of the journalists was given a Surface Pro as a compliment. The picture told everything. Somehow Apple’s impression has become one with “Cool” stuff. Microsoft’s “Productivity” campaign reminds people of the terrible managers and Principals at school. You do not market products with words like “Discipline”, “Productivity” etc. People are willing to pay a little extra just to show off their “cool” products. Apple’s products are coveted as a result. I am sure Microsoft’s domain has much more powerful computers. But the ordinary folks want simplicity, portability, and coolness in whatever they buy. It makes no logical sense when one sees people buying Starbucks coffee or Nike shoes for the same reason. These things have become must have items, whether they are really useful or not OR whether there are much cheaper and more useful alternatives are there or not.

  10. I doubt these ads are selling any Surface Pro 3s at all. The device is a bad tablet and a pretty mediocre, expensive laptop. Yes, it sort of does both, but it does both badly.

    The Lenovo, at least, is a pretty good laptop, which likely explains why the company’s rep claim it’s selling some of them.

    I wonder if Microsoft even understands why people buy the Macbook Air. I seriously do.

    1. While I agree with the majority of what you said…

      “The device is a bad tablet and a pretty mediocre, expensive laptop.”

      There are those that believe that. As a data point of one, I own a lot of computers, aside from my desktop, this is my favorite device.

      1. Convertibles aren’t a new thing. They’ve been around for years. They always attract a niche audience that absolutely loves them. But they never seem to catch on with mainstream audiences. I doubt that the SP3 will be any different though perhaps the only thing that was missing from the previous convertible devices was sufficient marketing?

        1. Maybe. Now that tablets have been popular for four years or so, I think that some may be yearning for more. This provides that.

  11. Comparison ads rarely, if ever work. I remember Toyota creating a commercial highlighting the fact that all the other companies were saying stuff like “Just like a Camry” – The best selling compact family car at the time (and probably still is. I just haven’t looked). Comparison ads do two things. The immediately advertise the other, rival product. In this case, that is the MacBook Air, while cheapening your own product. Look what it can do. It isn’t about what it can do. It’s about what the product represents. With Apple, there is a commitment from them to drive forward and continuously bring us bleeding edge tech, that is beautifully and simply crafted into sleek, minimal designs. The Surface Pro fails to tell us what it is supposed to be by design. It’s like a car with airplane wings. It’s ridiculous, cumbersome, and screaming for attention.

    The Surface Pros are bad laptops (small, no keyboard, cumbersome touch screen UI for the “computer” side of the OS), and the tablet isn’t a great tablet (nowhere near the app library of Apple, heavy, and has fans to keep it cool, although they are virtually silent, it still isn’t what a tablet should be).

    Apple puts design first, presents itself with challenges to keep itself within those design constraints, and 99% of the time pulls out a product that is another must have. For instance, to accept a USB drive, like the Surface Pro, the iPad would have to get considerably thicker. That’s just not an option for Apple. Use the cloud and enjoy a tablet that doesn’t break your arm to hold more than 4 minutes. If you want to use USB’s, grab something meant for it. Preferably, for Apple, that would be a Mac. Enjoy your stuff seamlessly synced between your devices, all with input, OS’s, and UI’s that make sense for the hardware you are using.

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