Cellcos too slow on new smartphone turnaround time

Here at Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Florida, HP announced its new iPAQ hw6500 Mobile Messenger smartphone. In a separate blog entry, there's a picture and I've detailed my first impressions of the device.

Here at Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Florida, HP announced its new iPAQ hw6500 Mobile Messenger smartphone. In a separate blog entry, there's a picture and I've detailed my first impressions of the device. But if you want to skip the movie, my take in that blog entry was to skip the device.   Given that the phone runs a Microsoft's operating system, Microsoft Mobile and Embedded Devices Division group product manager John Starkweather was there to support the announcement.  But, it has to be difficult for a guy like Starkweather to get too excited about a brand new smartphone when it's running the old (and I would argue obsolete) version of Microsoft's mobile operating system (Windows Mobile 2003) instead of Microsoft's latest and greatest: Windows Mobile 5.0.

Such is the nature of the mobile phone business.  Between all the testing a cellco must do to make sure a new handset (smartphone or not) doesn't royally screw up its network and the preparation it must go through to bring new devices to the market, Microsoft and its Windows Mobile hardware partners are beginning to feel the same pain that was probably a leading contributor to the pending extinction of the Palm operating system.  At the same time the OS vendor has a newer operating system on the market that addresses at least some of the shortcomings of the older one, the cellcos are still bringing phones to market that are based on the older one.  This lies in stark contrast to the PC market which typically has new devices on the shelves on the same day a that the new version of some operating system (usually Microsoft's or Apple's) is officially announced.

I can tell that Starkweather is painfully aware of the challenges faced by smartphone operating system vendors.  For obvious reasons, he can't be openly critical of the channel that's bringing his products to market.  When I turned to him to comment on the cellco industry's pitiful lack of agility, all he could say -- in political correctness -- was that Windows Mobile 5.0 was announced by Microsoft five months ago.  But his body language told me that it was one of the banes of his existence.  Although several Windows Mobile 5.0-based smartphones have been pre-announced, there is apparently only one that has so far made it to market (the PPC-6700 provisioned by Sprint).  Note to Mr. Starkweather: As of the publishing of this blog, not only does the list of domestically available Windows Mobile-enabled smartphones on Microsoft's Web site exclude the new Sprint phone as well as the HP device announced today, Microsoft's Windows Mobile home page says that the Sprint phone will be "available soon."

The cellco's industry's  ocean tanker-like agility might not be so much of a problem if it adopted at least one of the PC industry's more endearing traits: the idea of the upgrade.  Even the PDA industry, to which the cellco business is somewhat subjugated, isn't very good at this.  For example, forget smartphones for a minute.  In the PC business, if you own one of HP's personal computers, you're free to upgrade it to a new version of Windows on the same day that version ships.  You can walk into CompUSA, buy the upgrade, go home, and install it.  But with one of HP's iPAQs, you can't do this (buy the upgrade from Microsoft).  If there's any hope of upgrading an HP iPAQ from one version of Windows Mobile to the next, HP is the one that controls it. If HP decides not to provide an upgrade, which it has done plenty of times, your only hope for getting the latest greatest version of Windows Mobile is to buy a new device (conspiracy theorists will instantly spot that it's not in the vendor's best interest to offer software upgrades).

It's bad enough that the PDA business is screwed up by this phenomenon.  But once a device is transmogrified into a phone, it gets even worse.  Just supposing there was any hope of upgrading a smartphone, that hope is now subject to the whims of a two-tiered channel: first the device manufacturer (eg: HP) and then the cellco (eg: Cingular).  If the manufacturer can't (perhaps the device isn't up to snuff) or decides it won't do upgrades, then it doesn't matter what the cellco thinks.  But even if the manufacturer decides to make an upgrade available, it's still up to the cellco, which must take on 100 percent of the support burden that goes with the upgrade, to make that upgrade available to its existing customers.  Before this can happen, an entire new testing cycle must begin and end.

I was recently reminded of how painful the two-tiered barrier to upgrade can be with my XV6600.  The XV6600 has a Bluetooth radio in it.  Although this is a subject (one that really tortures Bob Frankston) for another blog, just because two devices have Bluetooth radios in them doesn't mean they can talk to each other.  For example, at my request, HP recently sent me its Bluetooth-based wireless stereo headphones to test.  I wanted to use them with my XV6600 to listen to MP3 audio files music and podcasts.  You can connect a set of wired stereo headphones to the XV6600. Given the XV6600's inclusion of a Bluetooth radio, it only made sense to me that you should be able to do the same Bluetooth-based stereo headphones.  But the headphones, which are sitting on my desk, remain untested because the XV6600 doesn't include the specific software (known as a Bluetooth profile) that enables the device for usage with stereo headphones.  It does include the profile that's necessary for using the XV6600 with a non-stereo wireless hands-free headset for use with the phone (in other words, it includes a microphone), but that's not the same thing as stereo headphones (although you'd think the same software would support both).

When I hit this roadblock, I immediately contacted Mike Foley, executive director of Bluetooth SIG; the special interest group that guides Bluetooth standards. This is when it became apparent that for me to even get the right software, that it not only had to be issued by Audiovox (the manufacturer of the XV6600), but that I had to take delivery of it from Verizon Wireless (my cellco).  To absolutely no avail, Foley, who knows everybody in the Bluetooth business on a first name basis, has even tried to pull some strings to get me the software through some backchannel.  So far, I'm out of luck (and the headphones are collecting dust).

This is not the way it should be.