Microsoft Must Do Better With Windows Phone Updates

Anyone that follows me on twitter or listens to the TDL Mobile podcast will know how much I love Windows Phone 7 and am more than happy to promote the devices to anyone that will listen.  I have blogged before my Thoughts on Windows Phone 7 and recently had quite an optimistic view when looking back with More Thoughts on Windows Phone 7.  I still enjoy my device but I’d like to think that I fall short of being a “fanbois” since I can recognise the devices limitations and currently untapped potential.  There is much to love, the Metro UI and Tiled start screen being my two favourites, but there is also important things missing that need adding in order for Microsoft to compete with the Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

I lived with the restrictions of Windows Mobile for years starting with a number of HP iPaq devices but had always used Nokia devices for my mobile phones.  The first time I used Windows Mobile as a smartphone was on a corporate contract where I was able to obtain new devices since the mobile operators were always happy to give out handsets in order to promote upgrades.  This meant that despite OS upgrades being scarce I could still get my hands on the latest models in order to get better phones or OS improvements.  When Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 they made it clear this was aimed at consumers and they don’t have the luxury of endless handset upgrades or next day replacements if a software update breaks the device.

When I changed jobs I stayed loyal to the HD2 which was a great Windows Mobile device thanks to it’s capacitive touchscreen (the first for a Windows Mobile device) and the HTC Sense UI.  There were still the limitations of Windows Mobile but I could accomplish nearly everything I wanted to within that Sense UI.  I had known from the original announcement that I wanted a Windows Phone 7 device but since I would now be on a personal contract any new phone I committed to had to be a device that would receive updates to the core OS without requiring a new device.

During the original announcements Microsoft had stated that the OS would be serviceable and that these updates would be delivered directly either Over-The-Air (OTA) or through the Zune desktop software.  Unfortunately, after I had committed to a 24 month contract on my new Windows Phone, this commitment was later watered down as reported by Paul Thurrott (blog | twitter) here: The truth about Windows Phone 7, software updates, and carriers’ ability to block those updates.  Here is what Joe Belfiore was reported as saying (emphasis mine):

“We are not going to push updates onto carrier networks that they have not tested. Microsoft is being very trusting of the carriers here. It’s very different from the situation with Windows Mobile, where every phone was very different and a full test pass was required on every phone. Here, there’s no impact on OEM code, network code, etc. There are upgrades that will require a full test pass. Most will not.”

This was really disappointing to read although I was optimistic that Microsoft would do the best they could in terms of putting pressure on the carriers given the mountain they had to climb in terms of market share.  There was one common thread in most reviews of Windows Phone 7 and that was two missing features from the OS; copy-and-paste and multitasking.  I would also add another two which are limitations in the platform that prevent VoiP applications like Skype and Turn-by-Turn solutions like TomTom.  I really do feel that Windows Phone 7 has the potential to compete, and maybe win, against the likes of Android and iOS but these features would need to be added in order to do that.  Microsoft were quick to commit to delivering copy-and-paste very soon after launch which in the US was early November 2010 and then the wait began.  There was speculation that this first update, codenamed “NoDo”, was indeed completed very soon after launch but it wasn’t until January 2011 that information was finally released directly from Microsoft: [Windows Phone Updates] What’s next?

It seemed that the tape was about to be cut on the update process and we were promised more information during Steve Ballmer’s 2011 keynote at Mobile World Congress.  The expectations were that this update would ship in February but there was disappointment again when the first half of March was announced.  This led to even more speculation that the carriers were causing this delay with their testing or that they were simply blocking the updates.  Given that this first update was required in order to add support for CDMA networks and with the expected announcement that Windows Phone was coming to Sprint, a CDMA network, it seemed that once again a new device would be the only way to obtain the latest enhancements.

Then suddenly without warning Microsoft announced Our first Windows Phone update—and how to get it and for a moment it seemed our worst fears had been extinguished.  Unfortunately this turned out to be a “pre-update” in order to improve the update process as some issues had been found which prevented the “NoDo” update from installing.  Even more unfortunate was the fact that this first “pre-update” was failing to install in 10% of cases and for Samsung owners there were even reports of the device being left unusable after the failed update.  In this age of social networking this sort of news travels fast and yet it took days for Microsoft to respond with More answers about our first software update.  The delay in providing guidance to customers experiencing issues is unacceptable and also worrying was the fact that I didn’t hear of anyone on either Orange or T-Mobile receiving this “pre-update” indicating it was either delayed or blocked.

Then when the time came for the real update approached we were brought back down to earth with another blog posting from Microsoft to outline Phone updates: process and timing.  This wonderful piece of marketing material fails to provide any factual information about when the update is shipping or the status of carrier testing (or even what that testing involves since there is no impact on OEM or network code remember?).  Now given the issues with the “pre-update” it is of course understandable that Microsoft wanted to take a step back but given the damage being done to the image of the platform it needed to be open and honest.  The people with Windows Phone devices needed to know the full situation with the carriers instead of being left to repeatedly hit the equivalent of the “F5” key to continuously check for an update.

Finally after months of waiting Microsoft finally delivered the “NoDo” update and even after the recent harsh lessons it took them a day to post information regarding the  “Copy and paste” update status.  Another round of excitement followed closely by more disappointment as Microsoft revealed that in the 1st phase the update was going to “unbranded” devices only which resulted in another torrent of negative feedback.  How can these updates be delivered to devices when they can potentially be used on a carriers network that hasn’t completed it’s testing?  Perhaps Microsoft are trying to send a clear message that customers should not obtain phones from carriers and to instead purchase direct from suppliers.

It seems to me that despite all the harsh lessons learned since that “pre-update” was released at the end of February that Microsoft were still being reactionary instead of being pro-active with information.  Even when information does flow it lacks any answers to the only questions device owners are interested in; when will I actually get the update? The best effort that Microsoft have managed to come up with is the Where’s my phone update? website and yet again this information is completely lacking any specific details preferring to use phrases like “testing” and “scheduling” while confirming our worst fears that carriers did indeed have updates stuck in “testing” limbo.  As a T-Mobile customer I haven’t even received the pre-update yet and since this appears to be a pre-requisite to installing “NoDo” I have no information to inform me what will happen.  Will there be an update process for the pre-update and then yet another update for “NoDo”?  If it goes straight to “NoDo” will there be any problems without this pre-update?

It seems almost certain that the continuous delays are a result of these carrier tests and I’m sure that Microsoft only released that table once it painted the most positive picture; how many of those would have been listed as in “testing” had it been released in December 2010 or January 2011?.  This opened them up to even more mud slinging this time by the Carriers: We’ve approved NoDo, Microsoft is delaying its Windows Phone update who have turned the tables and without any indication of how much of a delay they caused to this process Microsoft is left looking like the bad guy.  I can only hope that Microsoft reacts to that by providing far more detailed information with dates for RTM, carrier testing, carrier sign-off, release date.

After all these “delays” (Microsoft never committed to any delivery dates for “NoDo” so we’ll never know if there was an actual delay or not) we finally hear from the man that is supposed to be the main driving force behind Windows Phone as Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore explains Windows Phone update delays (in which once again he highlights that Microsoft own all the code and not the OEM or carriers) although the result was to anger the very customers he was trying to inform and he quickly followed up with an apology: Microsoft: We’re sorry the Windows Phone Update process has been rocky.  Issues with a brand new platform are to be expected although with such tightly controlled hardware and a company like Microsoft, with all their years of experience delivering updates to a completely diverse ecosystem on the Windows desktop OS, things shouldn’t have been this much of a mess. In the consumer market you are often graded not on the problems themselves but how those are resolved and that includes making detailed information available.

The message has always been clear from Microsoft on Windows Phone 7: “We’re in it for the long run” and that may well be the case but unless they get control of this update process and provide detailed information on when customers will receive them then they might find that there are no longer customers interested in owning a device: Why I’m Close to Giving Up on Windows Phone 7, as a User and a Developer.  The last thing Microsoft can afford to do is to start losing developers and potential customers thereby destroying the great momentum they have right now.

I’m still excited about Windows Phone 7 and looking ahead we have the “Mango” update (which will include multitasking), currently rumoured to be scheduled to appear around the 1 year anniversary, but at the same time I’m still really worried for the platform.  I’m concerned for two reasons, firstly the fact that “NoDo” was only a small release but “Mango” could be a 7.5 release of the OS and secondly this comment from Joe Belfiore taken from Paul Thurrott’s article:

“We build an update for everyone, and certify them with carriers,” he said. “They’re on a regular cadence as they are on the PC. If a carrier wants to stop an update, they can. But they will get it out on the next release.”

This comment was to highlight that updates are cumulative so a carrier would eventually ship all updates but an update can only ship once carrier testing is complete.  What if a carrier never completes the testing of the latest update?  That would also “block” all previous updates meaning the customer would never receive them.  You can see this picture building up already on the Where’s my phone update? website with 3 carriers still testing both updates.  Thankfully there is a light at the end of the tunnel as within that same article Joe Belfiore is quoted as saying:

“Technically, we could push updates through the Zune software and bypass the carriers”

Microsoft is well behind the competition and yet I believe it has a product in Windows Phone 7 that stands up to the competition, they just need to realise that potential through a quick succession of updates.  The ownership of the code allows them to avoid the pitfalls of Android and their experience with servicing Windows on the desktop should allow them to compete with iOS.  I would plead with Microsoft to take control of the update process from the carriers and release updates in the way Apple does with iOS who simply bypasses the carriers and releases an update to everyone at the same time.  Failing that they need to publish detailed information, including dates and enforced deadlines for carrier testing, the moment they start rolling out an update to anyone.

Anyone interested in the update process should read the Notes on Windows Phone 7 update process thus far by Rafael Rivera as he gives some great insight into just how Microsoft can completely bypass the carriers.  I’m optimistic that with the renewed push that will come from Nokia that Microsoft has the ability to be the tortoise in the smartphone race but Microsoft must do better with Windows Phone Updates going forward.

As a final comment I’d like to extend an open invitation to Eric Hautala and/or Joe Belfiore to appear on an episode of TDL Mobile.

DatabaseJase

I'm a PC, husband, father to 2 boys, SQL DBA and a technology enthusiast that loves gadgets. Co-host of TDL Mobile with Jonathan.