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Bad omen for Microsoft: It’s using BlackBerry’s ‘tools not toys’ line

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 8:44PM EST
Microsoft Tablet Marketing Criticism

As I’ve noted in the past, the “tools not toys” line of attack against iOS and Android devices was not at all effective for BlackBerry when it tried it out back in 2012 as part of its “Be Bold” campaign. However, it looks as though Microsoft hasn’t learned the lessons of history because it’s now employing the exact same strategy to sell its Windows 8 tablets.

Freelance tech writer Steven Aquino has snapped a picture of a new ad for Windows tablets that is without a doubt drifting into the dreaded “tools not toys” territory. The ad features a girl with a Windows tablet at her side that’s showing her search results for Mozart. It’s accompanied by the caption, “Honestly, I need more than just a toy.”

The question you have to ask yourself is, “To whom is Microsoft targeting this ad?” Unless there has been a resurgent youth interest in Mozart lately, it’s more likely that it’s being targeted at school administrators and not students. And herein lies the fatal flaw in Microsoft’s overall marketing pitch.

You see, this isn’t an isolated incident when it comes to Microsoft pushing the “tools not toys” line. Recall that during the Surface 2 launch this past fall, Surface product manager Panos Panay said that Microsoft’s goal with the Surface has been “to create a product that people can buy and get away from just consumption” and thus help people “get away from their iPad or tablet and be more productive.” We’ve also seen Microsoft deploy similar “tools-not-toys”-style messages in its ads blasting both the iPads and Chromebooks.

Why is Microsoft sticking with a strategy that BlackBerry has shown to be a dud? Well it helps to remember that Microsoft has been a company that for years has made its living selling products through IT departments that would then distribute those products to their workforces. This worked very well while Microsoft’s monopoly on the desktop operating system made it the only game in town as far as computing platforms went.

But the rise of iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, along with IT departments’ embrace of bring-your-own-device policies, has flipped the relationship around: iOS and Android are using consumers to gain traction in the enterprise while Microsoft is still trying to use the enterprise to gain traction with consumers. As Ben Bajarin notes, Microsoft is essentially “disguising an IT marketing campaign as a consumer campaign,” which he thinks is a sign that “they don’t get it.”

Of course, Microsoft does know how to sell things directly to consumers, it just needs to do it more consistently. The company’s Xbox One ads have on the whole been excellent and the Nokia Lumia 1020 ad showing off the device’s camera was one of my favorite smartphone ads of 2013. But if Microsoft continues to think that “tools not toys” will make it more competitive with iOS and Android then it’s in for a rude awakening.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.