"Do you think I have a chance of winning?" I asked the nice lady in the blue Microsoft t-shirt. "No," she said, a split second after the last word left my mouth. "Droid 4, right?" She pointed at my device. "I had that phone."
At the Valley Fair Shopping Mall in Santa Clara, California, after waiting an hour in line at the Microsoft Store for a chance to win a $1,000 laptop by proving my Droid 4 was faster than a Windows Phone, my speedy dual-core LTE device was being condemned without a minute's thought. She gave me a sympathetic glance, thanked me very politely for waiting, and even offered me a soda when I casually mentioned how I'd missed lunch by standing in line. Then, her colleagues rolled out a handtruck filled with water bottles, and offered them to all the other line sitters. So gracious. So polite.
An hour later, reflecting on my prognosticated failure and those of dozens of fellow would-be winners, I realized that the lady was not only right: she was giving me a taste of how the Microsoft Store wins this game, time after time.
Flash back fifty minutes: I'm at the front of the line, signed waiver in hand. I proudly stride forward, where a handsome man named Kyle tells me how this will work. We'll turn our phone screens off, he'll count to three, and we'll see who can take a picture of ourselves, tag it, and upload it to Facebook the fastest. I groan, and ask him if I can practice first. "No, I'm afraid not." "But you've practiced all day," I exclaim. "Sorry," he says, kindly, and gestures towards the waiting line. 3, 2, 1, GO: I hit the power button, swipe the lock screen, tap Facebook — so far so good — tap the Photo button, and — Kyle says he's done. I'm not terribly surprised, because I know how quickly the Windows Phone camera starts up, but when he shows me just how quick it actually is, I have to admit I'm beaten.
1.) hold down camera button, 2.) tap anywhere to take pic, 3.) tap for face recognition autotag, 4.) upload to your chosen social network
Before I laughingly let Microsoft take a picture of me with a "Windows Phone smoked my Android" sign, though, I ask Kyle what other challenges he might have offered. He rattles off five others, including the "show the weather for two different cities" that begrudgingly allowed Sahas Katta and his Galaxy Nexus to win earlier today, and a "find showtimes for a particular movie at a local theatre" that sounds comparatively easy.
Perhaps you've heard that Microsoft's contest is rigged. For instance, you might have heard that Microsoft makes contestants use the in-store Wi-Fi, only to throttle their bandwidth once they're performing the mission-critical task. While it's true that the store insists on a Wi-Fi connection, I personally ran speed tests on the hotspot... and while it definitely felt a little flaky, speeds were quite reasonable. What's more, Kyle was kind enough to let me check his own Windows Phone, and sure enough, he was using the very same access point. Even footing.
She was giving me a taste of how the Microsoft Store wins this game, time after time
No, Microsoft's contest planners were savvier than that. The reason the company wins is because nearly every test favors Windows Phone's clever integration of social networking and local search into the operating system... and the few that don't, like the two-city weather test, are carefully doled out to users with ancient, slow devices, those who obviously aren't tech-savvy, and those who don't care if they're a winner. The man who didn't know how to turn off the screen on his iPhone, the man with a bruised and battered Samsung Intercept, the lady with an LG Optimus S. The ones who, when asked, told Kyle that they were in it for a new phone, not to win a $1,000 laptop.
They got the comparatively easy tests, while every soul who brought in a powerful, recent device got a test nearly impossible to win. Mind you, some have: two employees told me that there have been as many as five winners over the weekend, and another admitted that Android has apps that can beat a number of these tests, if you know how to find them.
In some ways, Microsoft's challenge is like a carnival attraction, complete with an outlandish prize, a smooth operator, and a game that (only in hindsight) is deviously unfair. Watching Kyle's hands move, like any good carny, I couldn't help but grin at the speed with which he handled these tasks. The difference, and the real genius of the game, is that it's not about the laptop prize at all: it's about showing you how fast Windows Phone can be so you'll want one yourself. In fact, when I spoke to my fellow contestants, I discovered most of them had already bought in: they had come to trade their battered old Android or iPhone for a Windows Phone device, and the challenge was just a hurdle to pass.
If you still decide to brave the line yourself and try for that $1,000 Hunger Games laptop, be warned. Install some weather widgets and fire up TweetDeck or Siri, just in case you aren't technologically profiled before you walk in the door.
And may the odds be ever in your favor.