Microsoft’s Surface helped redefine computing, so why is its advertising harking back to outdated notions that a real computer should have USB ports and run Excel like a desktop?

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It is 2016 and there’s a good chance you’re reading this on your tablet or phone. Yet for some reason Microsoft is still litigating a stale argument about what qualifies as a “computer.” 

You may have seen a television ad from Microsoft poking fun at Apple’s line of iPad Pro tablets. I can understand why Microsoft is annoyed at its old nemesis.

The iPad Pro is — let’s be honest about this — a pretty obvious ripoff of Microsoft’s own Surface, a touch-screen tablet introduced in 2012 with a detachable keyboard so that it can be used as a somewhat compromised laptop. The iPad Pro is a touch-screen tablet introduced in 2015 with a detachable keyboard so it can be used as a kind of compromised laptop. 

Hey, it’s the tech industry. Copycats are a way of life. Microsoft’s Windows was a ripoff, too. 

Microsoft’s argument in the ad is that the iPad Pro isn’t a real computer like the Surface because — wait for it — the iPad doesn’t run a fully functional version of Microsoft Office and doesn’t have a high-end Intel chip or USB ports to connect extra doodads like a mouse.

This idea that the only thing that counts as a computer is a desktop or laptop with all the 1990s trappings is beyond arcane.

Smartphones will outsell traditional personal computers this year nearly 6 to 1. PC shipments are on track to decline for the fifth consecutive year. For plenty of people, especially younger people and those in developing markets, the smartphone is the primary or only computer in their lives. In China, home to the world’s biggest concentration of internet users and smartphone buyers, many people skipped the whole PC revolution and use their pocket computers as televisions, phones, computers and much more.  

Those of us who work in office jobs do often need those traditional PCs. I used one to write this. But what about a truck driver or retail worker or anyone who doesn’t have a fixed office to go to every day?

Those people do serious work, often with the aid of one or more computers. But those computers may not be PCs as Microsoft imagines them. They could be handheld computers like those used by fleets of UPS drivers.

Those are computers, and none connects to a mouse or runs Excel like a desktop.

The weird thing is the Microsoft of 2016 knows this. It believes this in its bones. It feels like a 2011 version of Microsoft ordered up this ad, not the current savvier, more humble Microsoft. Yes, this Surface ad is just marketing. But marketing matters. Those “Mac vs. PC” ads in the 2000s helped redefine Apple as a cool company that makes cool products used by cool people. That image endures.

My criticism of Microsoft’s misplaced ad message shouldn’t obscure the important work Microsoft has done with the Surface. When the Surface first came out, I couldn’t understand why Microsoft was bothering to spend a lot of time, money, attention and risk annoying its PC partners to produce the company’s first homegrown computing device.

And Microsoft flailed around with the Surface for a while. The company overestimated demand and lost money on every Surface it sold. But the Surface has become a tidy business for Microsoft now.

And maybe even more important, the Surface helped show there could be fresh ideas about what a “computer” should be.

Look at all the mishmash devices on the market now. Samsung has a line of smartphones with digital pens and huge screens that are almost tablets. (People no doubt use them for work.) Lenovo, Dell and others have done Surface-ish devices that mix some of the favorite features of tablets and laptops. Some of them have been terrible, but some are clever.

Microsoft’s rethinking of the “computer” was meant to keep pace with the changing ways people rely on things with electronic brains in everything: our white-collar office jobs, our cars, our restaurant visits and our hikes in the woods.

A computer has evolved way beyond the beige box with a graphical user interface. Microsoft’s marketing message wants to take us back to those boring beige days.