Microsoft wants MacBook Air owners to trade up to a Surface Pro by trading in

Another sign that Microsoft's aiming the 2-in-1 at the notebook market

Microsoft has launched a buy-back program to try to get MacBook Air owners to part with their notebooks and replace them with new Surface Pro 3 devices.

The offer, which started Friday and runs through July 31, will give customers up to $650 in store credit for a used Apple MacBook. The credit can be applied only toward the purchase of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in order "to get the maximum trade-in amount," the deal's fine print states.

People must bring a working MacBook Air to a Microsoft brick-and-mortar retail store for a trade-in estimate. The company did not provide any detail on the buy-back amount, other than to tout the maximum, but noted, "Trade-in value may vary."

That statement will give Microsoft considerable wiggle room in setting the value of a MacBook Air

Unless Microsoft plans on being very generous, the top value of $650 will likely be awarded only to relatively new 13-in. MacBook Airs that have been tricked out with the optional faster processor and 512GB of storage space, both upgrades from the stock systems for steep fees at the time of purchase from Apple.

Electronics buy-back company Gazelle, for example, will pay $628 for a 13-in. MacBook Air with a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 CPU and 512GB of flash-based storage. New, that machine retails for $1,649. But the lower-priced stock 13-in. MacBook Air -- $999 new -- is worth considerably less at Gazelle: The firm will pay just $413 for that notebook, which includes 128GB of storage.

Available Surface Pro 3 models start at $999. When equipped with a keyboard -- mandatory for turning the tablet into a laptop -- the out-of-pocket costs begin at $1,129. With the maximum trade-in value for a MacBook Air, customers would be spending $479.

The new trade-in deal was only the latest skirmish in Microsoft's one-way war against the MacBook Air, which the Redmond, Wash. company has repeatedly compared to its lighter, thinner hybrid tablet.

At the roll-out event last month, for instance, Panos Panay, the executive who leads the Surface team, put a Surface Pro 3, minus its keyboard, on one pan of a scale, a 13-in. MacBook Air on the other. The pan with the Air went down, the one with the Surface went up.

Microsoft has juxtaposed its Surface Pro against Apple's MacBook Air since the former's first days. In a minor media blitz shortly before the on-sale start of the original Surface Pro, Tami Reller, who was then a co-lead of the Windows group, made the case that her company's device was a suitable replacement for both a MacBook Air and an iPad because the Surface was less expensive than the combined cost of the two Apple devices.

Several analysts called the comparison illegitimate, arguing that the Surface Pro was a poor tablet when stacked against the iPad. "This isn't yet a fair comparison ... but it's a comparison Microsoft would like to make," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, in February 2013. "The challenge for Microsoft is that the Surface Pro doesn't make a very good tablet. Yet."

Microsoft's buy-back program will give customers up to $650 in store credit for a used Apple MacBook.

Today, Moorhead slightly revised his take on Microsoft's compare-and-contrast efforts. "I think it's a fairer comparison than before," he said in an interview. "But if battery life is your most important factor, there is no comparison. The Surface Pro 3's battery life doesn't come close. The [13-in.] MacBook Air has 12 hours of measured battery life [for browsing the Web or watching video.]"

Microsoft rates the Surface Pro 3's battery at 9 hours for each of those two tasks.

"But if you're looking for touch, the Surface Pro 3 is the better one," Moorhead continued.

He doubted many MacBook Air owners would step into a Microsoft store and slap down their laptops. "Most Mac owners are vested in the Apple ecosystem," Moorhead said.

That's not to say the trade-in campaign isn't worthwhile. "Honestly, for the attention, comparing yourself to something viewed as the premium device on the market is a good idea," said Moorhead. "You want to pick on a winner, not a loser."

And Microsoft does see the MacBook Air as the winner in the notebook battle. "This product is a great product, of course, and the MacBook, I totally understand why it's being used," Panay said during the May 20 event where he unveiled the Surface Pro 3. "But it is best-in-class when it comes to thinness and lightness. There is no debate."

Somewhere along the way between the original Surface Pro and this year's third-generation revamp, Microsoft dumped the idea of comparing its hardware with the twofer of a MacBook Air and an iPad. Instead, it's all about the MacBook Air, as is fitting: Microsoft has switched its Surface Pro marketing to trumpeting the 2-in-1 not as a tablet that turns into a notebook, but as a notebook replacement. It's a subtle, but critical, difference.

And the new trade-in offer sticks to that message. If it hadn't, Microsoft would have demanded Apple product owners bring in two things, not just one.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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