Dancing Fools


or, How Not to Sell Tablet Computers

Microsoft has always seemed to me to have a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to comparisons to their arch-rival Apple. Mostly this was more in terms of style rather than substance; for most of the last 30 years, Microsoft was the larger and more successful company by far. In the style arena, though, Apple has always come off as more tasteful, sophisticated, or “hip” than the software giant from Redmond. The cool kids used Apple computers; they were designers, musicians, video producers and the like. Windows PCs were used by business people, a less flashy bunch who nonetheless outnumbered the cool kids by about ten to one. For some time, the PC versus Macintosh sales figures reflected this.

Things have changed, and Microsoft now faces a situation where they’re seriously behind in the mobile computing market, far behind Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and even playing catch-up to devices running Google’s Android mobile operating system. This is substance, not just style, and it threatens to damage Microsoft’s bottom line going forward as more and more users embrace mobile computing.

Microsoft has responded to these challenges, first by creating Windows 8, a touch-centric version of their desktop operating system. Then, to the astonishment (and chagrin) of their original equipment maker (OEM) partners, they designed and produced their own tablet PCs under the Microsoft Surface brand. In an earlier post, I commented on how it seems that Microsoft is attempting to have the sort of total control over the computing user experience that Apple has enjoyed for years.

Why isn't the Surface Pro making inroads in the mobile computing market?

Why isn’t the Surface Pro making inroads in the mobile computing market? Photo: Microsoft

I think this is a good strategy, except that so far, the devices aren’t exactly flying off the shelves. Nobody know how many Surface PCs they’ve sold so far, but the market share for Microsoft’s mobile computing products is far below ten percent while Apple continues to be able to sell all the iPads it can manufacture.

A friend of mine has a Surface Pro, and I’ve written before on how the device really stands out as a quality item in an ocean of low-margin PC hardware that often feels disappointingly cheap. The materials used are very nice to handle, the operating system is responsive and attractive, and the stylus (which Apple and Android tablets don’t have) seems genuinely useful as an input device. It seems to me that more folks should be interested in this product, despite its higher price tag compared to other tablets.

I think the problem is with the marketing, specifically the television commercials produced so far. Rather than try to describe them, it would be best to simply have a look at one of them, courtesy of YouTube:

I used to work with advertising professionals, and I know that they love to produce interesting visuals and flashy action—often it gets them noticed more so than the product being advertised. But this isn’t just a case of video producers run amok, it’s a case of spending lots of money without really featuring the product and what it can do for the customer.

And it ends up being essentially dumb.

Once again, this commercial reminds me of Microsoft’s inferiority complex—here, it looks like the business-suit crowd is again trying to prove to the cool kids that they’re cool, too. It just doesn’t work for me.

Worse, the commercial squanders the chance to actually show potential customers what the Surface Pro can actually do for the business user. We see very brief shots of the Surface actually doing computing tasks and lots of shots of dancing business-suits. This is a shame, as Microsoft’s tablet/notebook device can actually score real points over the competition in this area.

A television ad could be created for the Surface Pro that would highlight the capabilities of the device and make a compelling case for it. It could be a “day in the life” sort of spot, highlighting how the device can do things that are limited or impossible with other tablets. For example:

  • A woman dressed in business clothes is on the commuter train to work. She’s reading a book on the Surface in “tablet” mode (keyboard not attached). The emphasis here is on the size and form-factor of the device. It’s a tablet computer, as small and handy as all the others.
  • She gets to work. Upon entering her office, she attaches cables for a USB hub and HDMI video to the Surface, turning it into a complete Windows desktop PC system, with full-sized keyboard, mouse, and large LCD monitor. The message here is that in this configuration, the Surface Pro is no longer just a tablet.
  • A co-worker hands the woman a USB flash drive. She attaches it to the system and opens some Microsoft Office files, which are displayed on the large monitor. She saves the files to a network file share.
  • The woman then undocks the Surface from the rest of the hardware and takes it to a presentation room, where she plugs in an external LCD projector and shows some sort of engineering simulation running on AutoCad or something similar.
  • Next, an afternoon meeting. The woman attaches the touch-cover keyboard to the Surface and flips out the kickstand. During the meeting she takes notes on the device, also using the stylus to annotate some on-screen images.
  • Finally the woman is at home. She lets one of her children watch a cartoon on the Surface. When another child wants to watch, too, she plugs the Surface into a large high-definition television set. Now the Surface becomes a home theater device.

The commercial ends with some sort of graphic, slogan, or whatever that reinforces the notion that the Microsoft Surface Pro does more, without explicitly mentioning the competition.

Of course, most potential customers already know who the competition is, and if they’ve been checking out Apple’s iPad, they may realize that the commercial just showed them over a half-dozen things that the Surface Pro can do that the iPad cannot.

Now I’m not a cinematographer or director and would never be able to create a good music video. But what I’ve described here is a real sales pitch, and with the right script, direction, music, and actors, it could be a good commercial that sells the Surface Pro on what it can do rather than using it as a prop in a dance number.

Apple continues to sell the iPad with commercials that show close-up views of their device doing interesting things. Microsoft needs to change course and counter this with ads that leverage the real benefits offered by their device, targeted to the people who make up their potential customer base.

If they don’t do this soon, I don’t see them gaining much traction in the market with their unique and ambitious mobile device. However, we might be treated to Surface: The Musical at some point.

UPDATE: It seems others have also noted Microsoft’s lack of skills in the television commercial arena. The day after I posted this, Robert X. Cringely over at InfoWorld has a great article on the subject, along with a commercial for Windows Phone 8 that he thinks is pretty good. The ad is funnier and more clever than what Microsoft usually comes up with, but I still think they need to do a better job of showing what their products can do.


4 Responses to “Dancing Fools”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    Great synopsis!

    • Hi Dean:

      Thought you might like that one. I have to say, if I had a thousand bucks lying around, I’d be tempted to try the Surface. There is an HP tablet hybrid device called the Envy2 or something that’s less money and looks interesting as well.


      Sent from my iPad

  2. Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs?
    I have a blog centered on the same subjects you discuss and would love
    to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would enjoy your work.
    If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.

    • Hello:

      Thanks for your interest, but I don’t blog all that often (it’s a requirement of my job). You’re free to link to my material as you wish.


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