Microsoft whacks Apple with new Surface Pro 3 ads

But omits pricing in its compare-and-contrast spots because the Surface costs more than a MacBook Air

Microsoft has taken on Apple's MacBook Air notebook with a trio of new advertisements, doubling down on its contention that the Surface Pro 3 is a better laptop than the real laptop.

Commentators immediately cited the ads as a return to the days of the "Get a Mac" campaign that Apple ran from 2006 to 2009. In the series, Apple needled Windows PCs, focusing on the then-current Vista and its missteps by citing problems like spyware, malware and the detested User Account Control (UAC), the security prompt that badgered users to confirm certain actions.

"Just to keep things interesting, we even have a back-to-the-future marketing campaign that just launched with Microsoft taking on Apple in a Surface Pro 3 vs. MacBook [Air] TV ad," said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research, in a piece on Techpinions about the PC rebound. "Yes, it's 2014 and Microsoft and Apple are still fighting over the PC business ... kind of fun and kind of amazing."

By Wednesday, Microsoft's three 30-second ads, which debuted Monday, had collected more than 400,000 views each on YouTube.

Each closes with the tag line, "The tablet that can replace your laptop," Microsoft's marketing message since the company launched the third-generation Surface Pro 3 in May, when Panos Panay, the executive who leads the Surface team, hammered on that theme.

Their target, the 13-in. MacBook Air -- Apple's most popular notebook -- was chosen because, Panay implied, it was the benchmark against which all other laptops should be measured. "It is best-in-class when it comes to thinness and lightness. There is no debate," Panay said in May of the Air.

In one of the ads, dubbed "Head to Head," Microsoft compared and contrasted the two devices, highlighting the lack of a touch screen on the MacBook Air, the pen included with the Surface Pro 3, and the latter's ability to separate from its keyboard.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft did not compare prices: The 13-in. MacBook Air Microsoft showed in the ad lists for $999, while the Surface Pro 3 and separately-purchased keyboard runs $1,129, or 13% more.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, was initially puzzled by the ads. "Microsoft positioning Surface Pro against MacBook Air. Forgetaboutit. Buyers choose the platform first," Gottheil tweeted Monday.

His point was that people first select Windows or OS X, then start looking at device choices. There's little chance that meaningful numbers of Apple customers will suddenly decide they want a Surface Pro 3, or on the flip side that legions of Windows users will break ranks and buy a MacBook Air.

When asked why he didn't think the ads would be effective, Gottheil said, "Because their marketing department makes big mistakes," and pointed to some groaners that Microsoft has aired in the past. "Their advertising is incredibly erratic. They run some great ads, and then they run some that are actually repulsive."

As an example of the latter, Gottheil cited a 2009 ad for the then-new Internet Explorer 8 (IE8). In the ad, a woman borrows her husband's notebook, apparently sees some pornography he had viewed, and then begins an impressive bout of on-screen vomiting. The ad, dubbed "OMGIGP," for "Oh, My God, I'm Gonna Puke," was meant to tout IE8's new "InPrivate Browsing" feature. Wags had long called the feature -- all browsers have them -- "porn mode."

Microsoft pulled the ad about three weeks after it debuted.

By Tuesday, Gottheil had changed his mind on the Surface ads.

"They got a lot of attention," was his explanation for the change of heart. "[The two are] apples and oranges, completely different devices, and the Surface Pro 3 is quite nice and something that someone considering Windows should look at, but not on their way to a MacBook Air."

Although Microsoft had long compared its Surface Pro tablet-slash-notebook to Apple products, initially it stacked its device against the iPad. Somewhere along the way between the original Surface Pro and this year's third-generation revamp, Microsoft veered to another message, one that trumpeted the two-in-one not as a tablet that turned into a notebook, but as a notebook with some tablet characteristics. The difference is critical.

Gottheil surmised that Microsoft dropped the iPad references because of changes in the tablet market: Growth rates have slowed dramatically this year. Researcher IDC, for instance, now predicts that 2014's tablet shipments will be only 12% higher than last year, a major fall-off from 2013's 52% year-over-year gain.

Still, Microsoft is sticking with a now-outdated message, said Gottheil.

"The idea that the tablet was a PC substitute has gone away in the market, in the press and on the part of vendors," Gottheil said. "That's driven sales for both Windows PCs and Macs. That has changed not just for Apple, for its Macs and iPad, but for the entire device market."

Microsoft's turned back the clock and given Apple some of its own medicine by running ads that pit the Surface Pro 3 against the MacBook Air.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.