UPDATE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

Summary:One of the things that I like about the iPhone is regular software updates delivered direct from the Apple mothership to the handset via iTunes without any carrier involvement. Initially it had seemed that Microsoft would take this approach to software updates on Windows Phone 7 handsets, and deliver updates direct to users without the handset OEMs or carriers getting in the way. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Confusion relating to a product feature of a product that's had millions of dollars spent on promoting it isn't a good thing.

One of the things that I like about the iPhone is regular software updates delivered direct from the Apple mothership to the handset via iTunes without any carrier involvement. Initially it had seemed that Microsoft would take this approach to software updates on Windows Phone 7 handsets, and deliver updates direct to users without the handset OEMs or carriers getting in the way. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

The other day my ZDNet blogging colleague Ed Bott asked Microsoft a direct question - who will control software updates. Here's the response he got [emphasis mine]:

Microsoft will push Windows Phone 7 software updates to end users and all Windows Phone 7 devices will be eligible for updates.

Case closed, right? After all, as Ed pointed out, there were "No equivocation, no qualifiers." Well, expect for that one word ... "eligible." What do you think that means?

At the Windows Phone 7 reviewers' workshop, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone Program Management, gave a different version of how updates would be controlled. Paul Thurrott has the quote [emphasis mine]:

We build updates for all Windows Phone users, but must certify them with the carriers. They'll happen on a regular cadence like they do on the PC. If a carrier wants to stop an update they can. But they will get it out on the next release.

Updates are cumulative. If one [carrier] doesn't get their testing done in time, the next push date comes and it goes out then. Carriers could in fact block updates to sell you a phone. That can happen. But we don't expect that to happen. We are not going to push updates onto carrier networks that they have not tested. Microsoft is being very trusting of the carriers here. This is very different from the situation with Windows Mobile where every phone was very different. With Windows Phone, there is no impact on OEM code, network code, and so on. Yes, there are upgrades that will require a full test pass. But most will not.

Hang on, so Microsoft will push updates to users, but only once carriers given them the go-ahead. This seems like a long way removed from the "no equivocation, no qualifiers" line Microsoft's PR machine has been spinning out. If Belfiore knows his stuff, and it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't, then this has some serious implications.

See, as much as I want to believe that carriers won't stand in the way of software updates, why should they care? They've sold a phone, got someone hooked onto a contract, and update or no update, the handset is likely to be junk at the end of that contract period. In fact, coming up with some nonsense reason why handset owners can't have a software update might actually drive handset sales, which in turn generate more customers locked in to a contract. Heck, you can kick off as much as you want, after all, your carrier never promised you any software updates in the first place.

This situation is confusing, and potentially worrisome, and Microsoft needs to clarify this situation - and fast. If Microsoft has actually given carriers the power to block updates then this needs to be made very clear, because this sort of thing is an important piece of information that buyers need.

If Microsoft has indeed given carriers a veto on updates, then this is a foul-up of epic proportions. I can't even imagine how or why Microsoft would have agreed to such a situation, especially since Apple hasn't had to relinquish control of updates to the carriers. Was Microsoft in such a weak position with Windows Phone 7 that it had no real leverage over the carriers?

This crazy situation also means that any promises of down the line value-add that Microsoft might now be offering might not amount to anything. Sure, Microsoft has promised that features like cut/copy/paste will come to WP7 handsets with the next update, but now it seems that getting those updates is dependent not just no Microsoft actually following through with the update, but also on the carriers giving it the OK. And this will be true for all updates, even it seems those related to security.

Not only is this bad for customers, it's bad for developers writing apps for the WP7 platform, because it means that heel-dragging carriers can fragment the platform right from the start, and there nothing that anyone - not even Microsoft - can do about it.

This is starting to feel like KIN all over again ...

[UPDATE #2: Ed Bott adds further analysis to the Windows Phone 7 update confusion and tries to clear up some of the FUD. Unfortunately, much of his analysis involves taking what we already know, looking at it slightly differently, and coming to a different set of assumptions.

Bottom line, Microsoft has, through issuing conflicting information, created a cloud of confusion that SHOULD be of concern to anyone who is banking of OS updates.

I do want to pick up of a few of Ed's points ... I promise I won't take long!

#1: "In other words, Microsoft is in the driver’s seat. They own the servers. They control the updates. But they also recognize they have partnership relationships to sustain, and they can’t just push an update out that might affect a carrier’s network. That would be stupid and short-sighted."

That's exactly the problem. Microsoft might control the update, but it's the carriers who have the final word on whether the users get those updates.

#2: "Do you think Apple delivers an update to the iOS platform without making sure that their carrier partners have had a chance to test it for issues?"

I think that this question is irrelevant, but I know from experience that some carriers have very little heads-up of iOS updates. Do you really think that Apple clears iOS updates with every single carrier worldwide that now sell the iPhone? Remember too that Apple sells unlocked iPhones that you can use on ANY carrier worldwide. I seriously doubt that the carriers have very little say in Apple's overall plan, and certainly wouldn't be in a position to veto a software update.

#3: "Mobile carriers are not evil or stupid. They are capitalists."

Exactly. And they are concerned with THEIR business. Think back to the pre iPhone days. When you bought a handset did you seriously expect updates and new features? No. Why? Because you'd been sold a phone, and handcuffed you to a contract. That's all that mattered to the carrier. If you want a better phone, you bought a new one.

#4: "The Android platform follows the exact same model as the (now-defunct) Windows Mobile platform. Hardware specs are all over the map, and thus there is a complicated chain of engineering that is unique for every handset ... Finally, if the stars align perfectly, it [the OS update] gets delivered to you, the device owner, either by the device maker or by the carrier."

Here's where Ed gets a big confused about how Android works (let's forget about the defunct Windows Mobile platform, which has been functionally extinct for some time now). The problem with getting Android updates to handsets has little to do with the hardware specs and more to do with the locks hat the OEMs and carriers put in place to stop people tinkering with those handsets. Why put these locks in place? Because the more you allow people to tinker with their handsets, the more you open up the possibility of the handset being bricked, and thus kicking off a support incident which costs money. Remember, while the Android community might be moving on and adding new features and updates, as far as the OEMs and carriers are concerned you were happy enough with the handset to pay for it in the first place. The OEMs and carriers don't owe you anything.

#5: "With the Windows Phone business model, every phone has a consistent design and a uniform feature set. So although there will be 10 devices in the first wave of Windows Phone, they will be functionally equivalent."

So we're back to asking why the updates aren't delivered direct to the handset?

#6: "“Carriers can block an update,” say the skeptics. To which I respond: BUT THAT’S NOT THE ISSUE. I have never known a carrier to block an update to a device."

Ed has obviously not looked at how fragmented the Android ecosystem is. Much of this is down to carriers and OEMs dragging their heels. The same carriers who Microsoft have put in charge of deciding whether WP7 users will see their update.

#7: "The most paranoid objection of all from the Windows Phone paranoids, as far as I am concerned, is this one, based on a quote Thurrott attributed to Belfiore: “Carriers could in fact block updates to sell you a phone. That can happen.” To which I respond, again: BUT THAT’S NOT THE ISSUE. What would be the business reason for that?"

Why might carriers do that? Well, I guess the costs associated with testing and support might be a factor. That's a hunch. What surprises me is that the quote above came from the corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone Program Management, not from me or Paul Thurrott or Peter Bright. I'm guessing that the corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone Program Management knows more about how carriers feel about updates than all of us put together. maybe he already knows what those blocking business reasons would be.

#8: "Meanwhile, we’ll see what happens over the next six months, as Microsoft delivers at least one and perhaps two significant updates."

So we end on  wait and see ... I dunno about you but I'm not sure I'd want to bet $2,000 and a 2-year contract on a wait and see.

What do YOU think?]

[UPDATE: More confusion added to the mix by Paul Thurrott:

So why give carriers this control, I asked. After all, Microsoft could simply require Windows Phone users to upgrade through the Zune PC software, bypassing the carriers entirely.

"Technically, we could push updates through the Zune software and bypass the carriers," he [Joe Belfiore] answered." (But they're not doing that. Perhaps the situation will change if carriers start blocking too many updates. This, frankly, is my expectation.)

Perhaps??? Expectation??? Sorry, but if the corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone Program Management is hiding behind weasel words like "technically" rather than offering an up front answer, something is going on here.

But who is in control here?, I asked, the carrier, Microsoft or the user?

"In theory, the user," he said, which caused a lot of laughter, as you might imagine. "Carriers get that the end users want this value. With Windows Mobile, the carriers were pretty righteous to test all the time ... They do take the support calls."

Yeah, I'm sure that the carriers "get that the end users want this value," but let's face it, what's in it for the carriers?

On the relationship with AT&T, whom I particularly hammered on updating: “AT&T is a close partner. We built a pretty amazing lab, for automated device testing. We are running AT&T’s reliability tests for our own benefit. We do an update, do a new build of the software, either an incremental or a full update, and as part of the normal software testing process, we’re automated with AT&Ts [testing] stuff too. We submit to AT&T the results from our tests and from their own test suites. They can run the tests too or not.”

Sorry, but that sounds like little more than gibberish.

Happy? If I were planning of buying a WP7 handset, I wouldn't be. There are far too many ifs and buts and guesses. Putting all this together, it seems like no one is really in charge and it's almost like the idea of how updates would be handled has been left until the last minute to be thrashed out.]

Topics: Software, Microsoft, Mobility, Operating Systems, Windows

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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