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

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.

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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

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108 comments
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  • My guess is that the carriers....

    had MS by the ball$. MS needs the carriers to promote their new smart phones a LOT more than the carriers need MS. As much as I hate the way the carriers try to control the consumers, without knowing all the fact, I believe MS had/has little choice in the matter.

    The carriers wanted Android to be able to put Jobs in his place. Do they really care whether WP7 succeeds or not? If they don't, MS may be in for a rough ride.
    Economister
    • Why did Microsoft deceive everyone?

      MS needed to do it for the carriers? Well the plan didn't work, then, as MS still could not get the biggest carrier, Verizon, to take its phones.

      The words in the ZDNet interview are clear. Microsoft used Weasel Words to deceive everyone into thinking the carriers could not delay updates.

      Need Copy/Paste? Multitasking? (basic features that Android and iPhone already have). Who knows how long you'll have to wait for your update.
      Vbitrate
      • Verizon

        @gyepera

        I think the Verizon issue just strengthens my argument. Verizon may be happy with Blackberry and Android (and MW6.5/Palm?) and eventually the iPhone.

        They may also be playing a game of chicken with MS. in that case, if the initially reported WP7 sales numbers are correct, my guess is that MS would largely cave.
        Economister
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @gyepera Good point on the Verizon angle.
        Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Or that Verizon is CDMA?

        To get phones to various vendors, you chosse those with comon donominators, like those running GSM?<br>Like Economister up there, you'll just take the "anti-MS" stance/assumption all the time, which is sad because if you take off the blinders, you may actually see the truth sometime.

        I allways wonder why the same people here try to deceive everyone else all the time?
        John Zern
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @gyepera - more to the point, only Verizon and Sprint use CDMA - everyone else in the world uses GSM (or derivitaves of). Where would you spend your (finite) time? Making your new phone OS sing for a carrier with 10% of the world-wide market or for the carriers that have 90% of the world-wide market?
        bitcrazed
      • Verizon

        @gyepera Supposedly Verizon has two reasons to wait until 2011 to release a WP7 phone - (1) no one offered to immediately build a CDMA phone for launch and (2) Verizon didn't push any for a phone as part of their iPhone deal
        archangel9999
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @bitcrazed
        Verizon and Sprint are not the only ones in the world who offer CDMA. Bell Mobility in Canada and any other company using their network use CDMA (namely PC Mobility and Virgin Canada.)

        I know this because I used to have a phone thru PC Mobilty. I always found the CDMA was a better system than GSM.
        monolithm
    • Update clarification

      The following is an excerpt from <a href=http://wmpoweruser.com/clarification-on-the-windows-phone-7-os-update/>this article</a>:

      [i]Brown: In terms of who creates the update, I should clarify that Microsoft is ultimately responsible for ?packaging?, if you will, the update, as well as delivering it to the phone. But OEMs and Mobile Operators can submit their own update code as part of an overall update that is delivered through Microsoft Update. We definitely will work very closely with our partners to make sure updates are tested thoroughly, but also released in a timely fashion, following standard practices in the industry today for smartphone devices.[/i]

      MS sends out its own updates. Carriers have their own updates. Carriers' updates have to be included in MS' updates in order to reach users. If carriers want their updates to be included in MS' updates. they have to give their updates to MS for testing and inclusion. Under the above arrangement, carriers can block their own specific updates, by not including them with MS'. Carriers however cannot block MS' updates which are dictated by MS.

      Alternately stated. MS has an update system. Carriers can hitch a ride by submitting their updates to be included in a MS update. Carriers can choose to delay their own updates, by not hitching a ride with a MS update. The MS update however will still take place.
      P. Douglas
      • This is good news

        @P. Douglas

        This is good news, as it basically voids any possibility that a carrier can block an OS update. I could not care less whether the carrier can get their own update to MS in time to be incorporated with the real OS update. In fact I see that as a plus.

        This also voids the whole argument in general. All phones will get the update from MS on day one.
        Qbt
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @P. Douglas

        Sounds all great in theory.
        dave95.
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @P. Douglas

        Carrier: I know there's deadline but I don't really care. Either my updated software goes in the next MS update, or there will be no MS update on my network.

        (Playing devil's advocate)
        xristop
      • They could do that

        And hold up the update for a whole month. After that, they're breaking contract and they'd likely see the inside of a courtroom really fast. Besides, Microsoft has really limited what types of things can be added anyway.
        Michael Alan Goff
    • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

      @Economister I really don't think the carriers care either way ... they care about 18/24 month contracts, and that's it. As far as the carriers are concerned, it's just another handset running another OS.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

      @Economister
      Verizon's getting Windows phones in 2011.
      Darkninja962
    • Or that fact that iPhone OS runs on 1 phone, on 1 network

      Economister?
      Yeah that's right, no multiple networks, no multiple phone models, end of story.
      Look at some of the issues between models and builds in reference to Android updates, maybe an embarrasment MS or the carriers didn't want?
      Nah, can't be that, just [i]has[/i] to be the "bad MS" angle, right?
      John Zern
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @John Zern
        Somehow, that is a good angle when MS or others do it to avoid the bad user experiences; but when Apple does it, it is the end of the earth.
        RedVeg
    • M$ is SO dead!

      @Economister
      Ron Bergundy
      • Banned again?

        That's a shame, cyberslammer.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • RE: Has Microsoft put Windows Phone 7 updates in the hands of the carriers?

        @cyberslammer3 Thanks for stealing my ID and posting under my name.
        cyberslammer2