Cutting through the FUD about Windows Phone updates

The paranoia around Windows Phone updates is so thick you could cut it with a machete. If you believe that carriers are going to undercut Microsoft's new mobile platform by sabotaging OS updates, you need to take a closer look at the business model.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Update: If you want to learn more about how mobile carriers work, including some refreshingly candid quotes from official documents and financial reports, see AT&T's business model: why your mobile bill keeps going up.

The paranoia around Windows Phone updates is so thick you could cut it with a machete.

The other day I wrote a post quoting Microsoft's official policy on the subject, under the headline "Microsoft is in the driver's seat for Windows Phone updates." I've since had follow-up conversations with Microsoft spokespeople confirming that what I wrote was accurate.

This morning, Paul Thurrott published a snarky, melodramatic post that promises to explain "what's really happening." (I'll give him the courtesy of linking to his post so you can read it, even though he didn't bother to link to mine.) Peter Bright at Ars Technica has a similar analysis, minus the snark, with considerably more technical depth, and with ample links. And my ZDNet colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes piled on this morning with a rehash of the issue.

Ironically, Paul's post, which is drawn from his experience at a reviewer's workshop he attended last month, actually supports my point, explicitly and without reservation. He even put the money quote in boldface type. Here, read for yourself:

So why give carriers this control, I asked [Microsoft Corporate VP Joe Belfiore]. 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 answered.

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. 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?

That's where the paranoia creeps in. And that question of the business model is what my friends Peter and Paul (and Adrian too) are missing.

Mobile carriers are not evil or stupid. They are capitalists. That often produces behavior that appears to be evil and/or stupid. Depressingly often, in fact. But there's usually a business reason for that behavior. And those who are arguing the paranoid case are ignoring those business models. That's why the communication between them and Microsoft is so cantankerous. If you're speaking different languages, communication is difficult.

Paul's latest post even includes a quote from Belfiore that explains this issue, although Paul fails to connect the dots:

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.

"Every phone was very different." Exactly. Everyone who ever owned a Windows Mobile phone knows how true that is. Android owners are becoming aware of it as well, as I discovered while researching this post.

Page 2: The trouble with fragmented platforms -->

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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:

  • The operating system vendor (Microsoft or Google) issues a new version (of Windows Mobile 6.5, say, or Android 2.1).
  • They make that code available to handset manufacturers like HTC, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson, who modify the code as needed to match the capabilities of each specific device.
  • Then they hand the code over to the carrier (AT&T, T-Mobile, Orange, Vodafone, and so on) who might or might not add their own bits to it (branding, crapware, etc.) and test it on their network.
  • Finally, if the stars align perfectly, it gets delivered to you, the device owner, either by the device maker or by the carrier.

I know this hideous process painfully well. I owned a Samsung Epix i907 phone that was finally updated to Windows Mobile 6.5 in July 2010. That particular Windows Mobile update was released to manufacturers by Microsoft in May 2009. Samsung's support page had originally promised the update in February 2010. Their update was finally delivered 14 months after Microsoft's RTM and five months after their original promised date. Ugly, but typical of the fragmented Windows Mobile market.

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. The handset makers don't have to get involved with updates to accommodate unique hardware choices, and any apps that carriers add have to go through the marketplace; they aren't part of the OS image.

"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. Instead, they and their handset maker partner make a business decision not to invest engineering resources in modifying a new version of the mobile OS for a specific device and carrier.

That's not just a semantic difference, it's fundamental. You can't just take unmodified Windows Mobile 6.5 and install it on any device running Windows Mobile 6.1. It needs work. By contrast, an update to a Windows Phone 7 device should work identically on all available devices, without any engineering effort on the part of the handset maker or the carrier. It should make customers happier.

If you own an Android device, you are probably experiencing the exact same phenomenon that Windows Mobile users suffered through for years. Google released Android 2.1 back in January 2010. If you own a Motorola Cliq, you finally got that upgrade this week, 10 months later. Sound familiar? And to do the upgrade, you have to download a file from Motorola and go through a pretty daunting procedure.

If you own a different Motorola device, you might or might not get an update:

Motorola provides software updates to ensure your phone stays running at its best, however we do NOT provide updates for ALL Motorola devices. Please check on the subsequent pages to see if your device is supported.

In some cases, it's easier to go to a third-party site to find the update schedule for devices. This site, for example, lists six Motorola Android phones sold in the U.S., of which three are scheduled for upgrades to Android 2.1 in Q3 or early Q4. Two of them will get Android 2.2 shortly (it was released by Google in May 2010, so that's at least a six-month wait). And one, alas, won't get the 2.1 update at all. You want it? Guess you'll have to root your device.

Likewise, if you have a Sony Ericsson Xperia 10 Mini, you are probably just now getting Android 2.1. But it depends: "Exact date of availability varies depending on operator and/or market." Here's what one third-party commentator had to say about it a couple weeks ago:

Sony Ericsson announced that the Android 2.1 updates for the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, X10 mini and X10 mini pro will start to be rolled out this Sunday, October 31.

This exciting news comes as Google is getting ready to officially release Android 2.3 Gingerbread in the wild.

Makes you really trust in that platform, doesn't it?

But I saved the best one for last.

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The most paranoid objection of all from the Windows Phone conspiracy theorists, 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." (I presume, by the way, that that is a response to a hypothetical question, probably after it was asked multiple times.)

To which I respond, again: BUT THAT'S NOT THE ISSUE. Yes, in theory, a carrier might try to veto an update. But what would be the business reason for that? I've been a customer of AT&T (and before that Cingular) for nearly 10 years. If an update was available from the handset maker, I got it. If Samsung chose to drag its feet, I was stuck with the old OS. A friend who is on T-Mobile reports a similar experience with his Windows Mobile 6.0 device. Neither AT&T not T-Mobile appeared to care, as long as our respective bills are paid on time each month.

Carriers don't want to sell you a new phone. They want you to pay them a monthly bill, preferably a big one with a full data plan and a bunch of add-on services. New phones cost them money, in the form of subsidies they pay the handset maker in exchange for getting you to agree to a two-year contract to pay that big monthly bill. You pay off that subsidy over the life of your contract. When the contract is up, your carrier is perfectly happy if you keep paying the big bill.

They will also probably offer you a new subsidized price for the latest greatest handset as a way to coerce you into signing a new two-year contract and not switching carriers. In the mobile industry, this metric is called the "churn rate," and carriers want to keep it as low as possible. In general, when your contract expires after two years, there is likely to be a much better phone available for you. The carrot of a discount on that shiny new device is what carriers use to lure you into either staying or switching. Making your old phone unpleasant to use does not inspire loyalty; it sends you to another carrier.

The cold, hard reality is that Microsoft is trying to carve out a middle space between Android and iPhone, although in my opinion it's much, much closer to the iPhone model. Absolutely standard device specs eliminate the problem that Windows Mobile and Android have with device-specific delays. Update servers run by the OS mean a consistent experience for users (as proven by the Apple experience) and they also eliminate a significant headache for device makers and carriers. In that scenario, everyone wins.

Meanwhile, we'll see what happens over the next six months, as Microsoft delivers at least one and perhaps two significant updates. Meanwhile, I'll keep asking questions and passing along answers as I learn them.

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