Will they switch? The Kid Test: Windows Phone vs. iPhone

Is Windows Phone's unusual user interface enough to win over two boys, ages 12 and 14, who are both iPhone users?

"Do you have that phone," one of my boys asked me earlier this year, after a Windows Phone ad came on TV. "Yeah, and could we try it?" said the other.

Thus was born the experiment we've run over the past month. Could Windows Phone entice one or both of my kids away from the iPhone?

My boys, 14-year-old Declan and 12-year-old Rhys, were fascinated by the ad showing the distinctive "tile" home screen of Windows Phone, with application tiles being moved around and resized. It looked different, cool, and unique from the iPhone 4 that they both use and from the Android phones they've seen me use.

Indeed, it is different -- credit to Microsoft for originality. But that interface, as well as the phone in general, hasn't been enough to make me regularly use my Windows Phone in the way I do my iPhone 5 or the Galaxy Nexus.

I have an HTC 8X Windows Phone that I was given when attending the Windows Phone 8 launch event last year. I use it occasionally to keep up on the platform. But the lack of Google Voice support -- something I've written before that Google should fix -- means I don't feel comfortable going out only with it, as I would with either of my other phones.

That's me and my pretty specific requirements. Would my kids be different? Microsoft agreed to lend them each a review phone, so I could find out. Declan ended up with an HTC 8X , just like me, while Rhys got the Nokia Lumia 920.

Declan and the HTC 8X

No Instagram!
For Declan, any chance Windows Phone had for winning him over was pretty much lost when he learned there was no Instagram app. Yes, we found apps that allowed him to browse Instagram pictures using his own account, settling on Metrogram. But neither that nor any of the apps let him upload images, and that was a big issue.

Apps that add filters to photos like Bubblegum or the built-in Photo Enhancer weren't a solution, either. He (and his friends) don't care much about using filters. It's about the sharing on that specific network. Instagram is their social network, a way for them to connect primarily through pictures.

Twitter, Facebook? Sure, he and his friends all use those. But Instagram is where it's really at, and without the ability to upload, he couldn't participate.

"I can only look at pictures. I can't post anything of my own. It's kind of annoying, if you like to be social," he told me.

"Instagram" app matches in Windows Phone app store

Nokia is pushing #2InstaWithLove campaign to pressure Instagram to make an official Windows Phone app. But Instagram should provide its own app for the same reason Google should provide a Google Voice app -- for security issues.

When there's no official app, third-party apps move in to fill the gap. That puts your users at risk, because it can be unclear if those apps are somehow logging password information. Your brand suffers, too, as people might not know what's real or not in the app search results they get back.

The Verge reported that Microsoft might be working on its own Instagram app. That, along with better policing of the app store, will help with some security issues. But even that app won't allow for uploads unless Instagram provides it with access.

Tiles not so cool
How about what attracted Declan to the phone in the first place, those cool tiles?

"The tiles were what drew me in, but then they didn't work as well as I thought," he said. "They looked cool, but when it comes to using them, it's kind of confusing."

Photo Enhancer app, in the upper left corner

Confusing? With the iPhone, each app icon also has a text label, so you know exactly what it is. But with Windows Phone, you only see labels if the apps are medium- or large-sized, not small. It's not something I thought much about myself, until he pointed it out.

"I have no idea what that's supposed to be. It's some lady," he said, pointing to the Photo Enhancer app. "You have to have them big to have labels."

There were also things he didn't like about the hardware, such as the placement of the volume buttons -- that's not really a Windows Phone issue and more a hardware issue. But it points to both an advantage and disadvantage of Windows Phone. Different models can lead to a different experience.

iPhone (left) vs Windows Phone calculator keyboard

Hurray for the calculator
On the upside, Declan did like how his People tile, when large, rotated to show pictures of his different contacts. He also liked that the screen was nice, clear, and big compared with the iPhone 4. Another favorite was the calculator, for having a backspace key, unlike the iPhone.

It was one of those things I would never think much to consider, since I rarely use my phone's calculator. But as a student, he's using it all the time. Having to clear an entire entry rather than deleting one mistakenly-entered digit is a pain.

Of course, there are no doubt replacement apps that can be found for the iPhone to solve this particular issue.

In love with the big screen

Rhys and the Nokia Lumia 920
The screen on the Nokia Lumia 920 is even bigger than that of the HTC 8X, and it's one of the things that won over Rhys. He began watching TV shows on Netflix through his phone, something he never did on the iPhone, because the larger screen makes viewing easier.

Like his brother, Rhys wasn't happy to find that some games like Plants vs. Zombies were more expensive for Windows Phone ($5) than for the iPhone ($1). One blamed Microsoft for this; the other blamed the game makers. I don't know who to blame, myself.

Tiles make it 'flowy' and Xbox link is nice
As for those tiles, Rhys does like how they make his phone feel more "flowy" compared with the iPhone. He also quickly resized and moved the tiles around, stuff he learned from the ads alone. He liked how the Facebook tile did live updates of status messages.

He also liked how the Games app linked to his Xbox account. He used that connection to change his avatar look, to send messages to other Xbox friends, and more. "It's nice to see what your friends are playing, or what achievements you've done," he told me.

Leaving the iPhone behind
I knew Windows Phone had captured Rhys entirely when, walking out of the house to go on a short vacation, I noticed he'd left his iPhone behind on his desk. He was all in on Windows Phone, no safety net and not worried at all. In fact, his biggest concern has been having to go back to the iPhone 4.

"Overall, it just felt more unique. It felt as if I had control of the phone and was able to do more things with it," he said when asked to sum up his experience with Windows Phone.

But will the parents switch?
In the end, perhaps the biggest challenge to him and other kids going to Windows Phone is that he and his brother are getting our cast-offs. When we upgrade, they get our previous-generation devices.

For Rhys to go Windows Phone, he really needs me to go Windows Phone. I certainly have no inclination to put him on a contract -- which he's not on now -- just to knock the $400 full price for a Lumia 920 with AT&T down to $100.

This is where newly announced Nokia phones like the Lumia 520 might come in. The phone is first headed to China but is promised to eventually come to T-Mobile in the U.S. At around $180 , it becomes more reasonable to consider as a purchase for a birthday or holiday gift, or for kids to save up for it their own.

Then there's the Nexus 4. Both my 21-year-old niece and the daughter of a friend who is about the same age couldn't wait to get one. For me, the lack of LTE makes it a non-starter. But for someone who's young, who doesn't want a contract, the flat price of $300 might be the most compelling smartphone feature of all.

Related to that, I might try this test again with Android phones. But what kicked it off in the first place was the unusual UI of Windows Phone that attracted the interest of my boys.

Ultimately, I found it amazing that for one son, there really was a killer app that killed Windows Phone in its tracks: Instagram. By contrast, the other was hooked by things he can't get from an iPhone -- a large screen coupled with an unusual and fun UI.

A note about commenting
On a personal note, phone reviews are often a magnet for abusive fanboy comments . Both my children weren't trying to be experts in their use of Windows Phone, nor trying to cheerlead for or attack any particular brand. It was just an experiment to see if they found Windows Phone compelling enough to leave the iPhone behind.

Whether you're an iPhone lover, a Windows Phone lover, or an Android lover, you are welcome to comment and point out issues. But please do so in a constructive manner. My boys will naturally want to read the responses themselves, and I'd hate for them to see adults acting immaturely.

 

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