How Microsoft can get Windows Phone 7 back on track

Microsoft officials (and some of their defenders) are cautioning that too much is being read into the angry feedback from early users. I disagree. Microsoft needs to get serious about WP7 transparency to keep its loyalists around.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Lately, it seems Microsoft can't do anything right when it comes to Windows Phone 7. The latest in a growing list of gaffes happened over this past weekend, following a Microsoft Channel 9 video interview with Joe Belfiore, Corporate Vice President of Windows Phone Program Management.

In his Mix'11 video preview, Belfiore told viewers "I'm getting updates out," and that the first two updates were "live." As many Windows Phone 7 users know all too well, neither of these statements rings true. Most WP7 users still have not received either the February pre-update or the March "NoDo" copy-and-paste one.

There was so much outcry over Belfiore's interview, that he posted an apology in the Channel 9 comments. From his note to viewers and WP7 users:

"We know it’s been frustrating to wait for features/fixes and (probably worse) to hear little from us on specific dates. We are sorry the process has been rocky. The 'where’s my phone update' table is our first step to try to remedy this in the face of technical problems that have made our first wave of updates take longer than we expected.  We know the table would benefit greatly from more detail, and we are hoping to add more to it by working with the Operators who own the 'testing' phase to get more clarity.  If your phone is shown in 'scheduling', it’ll be worth checking the table next week."

That's all well and good -- except that in the U.S., there are only two phones shown in "scheduling": The Dell Venue Pro and the HTC HD7 . The other handset models here are still in the murky "testing" phase. (And Verizon still has still not announced its WP7 plans.)

Microsoft officials (and some of their defenders) are cautioning that too much is being read into the angry feedback from early users. After all, the 2 million or so however many WP7 users out there (the 2 million is sales of WP7 phones to retailers) are largely early adopters, not the consumer masses, the Softies often say.

I disagree with this view. Aren't your early adopters your most valuable asset? They tend to be the loyalists; the ones who demo new products and services for friends, family and sometimes strangers. If you start losing your core audience of loyalists -- especially when you're trying to make a comeback (like Microsoft is with Windows Phone 7) -- you're in a world of hurt.

For every self-described fanboy like @Hamaze who dumps WP7, there are tens or hundreds more contemplating, if not doing the same.

Microsoft needs to rethink its claims of WP7 "transparency" and start answering the questions that its loyalists are asking:

1. Why is Microsoft allowing mobile operators to hold up its WP7 updates? Unlike the case with Android phones, Microsoft develops and deploys the updates for all of the WP7 handsets, Belfiore said in his Channel 9 video. But who cares if mobile operators are subsequently allowed to derail the process?

2. If the coding on NoDo really was completed in December 2010, as has been rumored, what caused a three-month-and-growing delay in its delivery? If there are certain operators (cough, AT&T, cough) that are especially guilty, why not call them out publicly? (Microsoft should have learned this after trying to protect Yahoo as the culprit behind a WP7 data-leak problem.)

3. There's talk that the mobile operators are holding back the Microsoft updates because they're adding firmware modifications to their platforms to lock phones to their networks. Is this true? If it is, why is Microsoft allowing it?

4. What is Microsoft doing -- specifically -- to fix the update process? How can users be sure these kinds of delays aren't going to happen again with Mango?

5. Speaking of Mango -- which Belfiore said Microsoft will be talking about in more depth at the Mix conference in mid-April -- are there going to be any WP7 updates arriving between NoDo and Mango? When I've asked, I've been told no comment. I'm not asking for specifics about the updates, but I think users deserve to know whether or not there will be anything between now and the end of the year.

Microsoft needs to do some serious damage control at Mix'11 around Windows Phone 7. Those so-far-undisclosed Mango features better make the wait until Q4 2011 worth it. And it wouldn't hurt if Microsoft shared a tidbit or two about "Apollo," the 2012 Windows Phone update just to keep a few more believers on board....

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