Editorial: Smoked by Windows Phone’s Smoke and Mirrors Revealed

When the Smoked by Windows Phone challenge launched at CES this year, it was an unexpected surprise that brought numerous people flocking to the Microsoft booth for a chance to win $100. Ben the PC Guy was a personable host, stating simply that his phone could do anything better than yours and he had Ben Franklin to back him up if he failed.

The premise was simple and it was presented in a grassroots manner that really got people interested. There was no premeditation here. It was you against Ben for the chance of winning $100 and securing the smug knowledge that you beat out a smug guy confident in his phone platform. The very success of the campaign lead Microsoft brass to take notice, which meant that the innocent grassroots campaign would be transformed to serve the needs of the corporate machine.

We reported last week that Microsoft had adapted the challenge to their store fronts across the United States and upped the ante by offering up a $1,000 prize. Of course, Microsoft wants to make sure that Windows Phone stays ahead here, since giving away $1,000 computers to everyone who walks through the door doesn’t make sense.

Using Old Carnie Tricks

Yesterday the Internet took up the cause of Sahas Katta, a man who managed to smoke Windows Phone at its own challenge with his Galaxy Nexus, only to be denied the final prize. Microsoft ultimately relented and awarded Katta with a laptop and a phone for his troubles, but this begs the question, what exactly were Microsoft’s reasons for not awarding Katta the win in the first place?

The initial reason given to Katta was “just because”, which quickly turned into arbitrary reasoning that instead of displaying two different cities’ weather, he had to show the weather of cities in two different states. It turns out that there is a significant bait and switch tactic at play in these Microsoft stores and that Katta somehow managed to slip between the cracks.

Microsoft’s challenges are a series of challenges based on the device that you bring in. For users who bring in old devices that probably don’t perform as well as Android 4.0 or iOS5, simple challenges like display the weather will suffice. However, for today’s powerhouse devices, challenges such as “take a photo and then post it to Facebook” or “find the times for a specific movie at the local theater” surface, as reported by the Verge.

Microsoft employees are directed to put you up against certain challenges that are specifically designed to make sure your phone fails. For example, a guideline released to Microsoft employees shows extensive thought put into the challenge to make sure the odds are stacked in Microsoft’s favor. A good example of this is making sure the Facebook challenge is not issued to someone with an HTC Status, which features the same picture-to-post feature that Windows Phone does.

You should also steer clear of this challenge against an HTC Status (i.e. the Facebook Phone) as it also has a built in pocket-to-picture-to-post feature and a camera that switches on even faster than Windows Phone.

Microsoft has been very crafty in ensuring that users who take the Windows Phone challenge will have had to win legitimately, but it turns out not everyone who takes the challenge wants to prove Microsoft wrong, thanks to its win-win offer. Many people who take the challenge come in with old phones, knowing full well that they’ll lose the challenge. The pay off is that Microsoft will then replace that old device with a shiny new Windows Phone.

The situation is win-win for Microsoft as well, since a new user to Windows Phone who has positive experiences is more likely to recommend the phone to other friends who might be unsatisfied with their Android or iPhone handset as well.

The real shame here is that Microsoft revealed its policies through a slip in the cracks. It was obvious that Sahas Katta was not supposed to receive the simple weather challenge, as it was designed for non-power users. This whole debacle has tainted what was once an innocent grassroots effort in order bring more attention to the Windows Phone platform. I’m not entirely sure that Microsoft will be able to recover from it, but I suppose time will tell.


  • I guess it only makes sense that when pushing a grassroots campaign to something nation-wide there would be some flaws and leaks in how it’s executed. What I don’t get is WHY they felt the need to put this in their stores. Sure, it’s a cool way to get people in there and looking at stuff, but the fact that they need that to get people in the door is a bad sign (eg: can you imagine if Apple stores did the same? It would be nuts).