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Microsoft Finally Gets Transparent on Phone Updates

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Chances are, if you bought a Windows Phone 7 (s msft) handset prior to this month, you’re waiting for the first software update, codenamed “NoDo.” Phones that initially launched this month on Microsoft’s platform come pre-loaded with the update, which adds a few new features and performance improvements. After missing its first self-imposed deadline of mid-March, Microsoft pushed the update to the last half of this month, but only a few phones have seen the update so far. Most handset owners have been in the dark as to when they’ll see the promised software. As a result, Microsoft is now posting a status page where handset owners can learn when to expect the NoDo update on their phone.

This last step actually should have been the first one, because it would have avoided some of the negative attention the company has earned through a series of update mishaps. For starters, the NoDo update is relatively limited in what it brings to Windows Phone 7 devices, which still have yet offer core features found in competing handset platforms. The final version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system was completed late last summer, so some, including myself, expected to see more progress with Windows Phone 7’s feature set by now.

Last month, speaking at the Mobile World Congress event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said  this first software update would be available for all Windows Phone 7 devices in the first two weeks of March. That effort first stumbled with reports of a preparatory update causing particular phone models to be inoperable. The right thing to do was to pull back the software for additional testing, which Microsoft did. At that time, the new target date was set for the end of March, and some handsets are now starting to receive it.

With the new status page, handset owners can see what progress is being made with the update for their particular handset. Based on the phone model, the update could be in one of three stages: testing, scheduling and delivering. The testing phase is self-explanatory, as handset makers and carriers want to ensure the new software doesn’t negatively impact the customer, although I expect the timeframe for such efforts is largely out of Microsoft’s control. Scheduling means that Microsoft is preparing the software release, which it says typically takes 10 days or less. Finally, the delivering phase is when Microsoft is sending updates notifications to handsets, at which time, customers need to connect their phone to a computer for update download and installation.

While Windows Phone 7 handset owners now have a clearer understanding of the update’s status — which Microsoft says it will refresh on a weekly basis — I’m still questioning one aspect: delivery. Even after a handset enters the delivering phase, Microsoft says the update may not appear for weeks because it stages the update in batches. If the software has to be downloaded from Microsoft’s servers, can’t they handle an upgrade en masse? The only reason I can think of requiring such staging is in case of implementation issues, which is smart from a safety perspective, but shoots the entire self-imposed deadline in the foot. My HD7, for example, still hasn’t received the update from February, although it’s now in the scheduling phase.

In some ways, the situation is better in the Microsoft world than in the Google Android space, which faces version fragmentation, but these are different scenarios. Google develops Android with added features in each release that developers can take advantage of. But Google simply makes the updated platform available; it doesn’t push the system updates out to phones, with one notable exception in the Nexus line of handsets. By comparison, Microsoft is taking responsibility for getting phones up to date, which is a positive sign. It’s also easier, at least in theory, because the company set minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7 handsets, so the few different models share many of the same internals.

I fully sympathize with Microsoft on the complexity of software updates for smartphones, because there are many players involved: consumers, handset makers, and numerous network operators. But I keep coming back to one point in all of this: other companies have proven that they can better manage such updates in a fast-moving and complex environment. If Microsoft can’t do the same, what does that say about its ability to become the third mobile platform behind iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog)?

5 Responses to “Microsoft Finally Gets Transparent on Phone Updates”

  1. I also have to agree in general with the comments above mine.

    “How does MS pull back from this? I certainly don’t know”

    And it’s not your job to know. But it’s Ballmer’s job to know and I’m not confident that ape knows which shoe goes on which foot in the morning. Microsoft really is in a sorry state compared to the “good old days” when Gates ran it with a vision. I, too, have seen a relatively large change in the systems a company wants to pay for. Once upon a time there was no question…you got Windows Server with Exchange, SQL Server and so on. These days Windows is still the de facto desktop system but on the server? One large company I’ve worked for recently was working as hard as it could to rid itself of all the licensing costs by going with Linux servers, MySQL and Google email. And it’s not a bad solution because it actually works. And they keep converting because Microsoft just plods ahead as if it’s 1990 and people have no real choice. It’ll be some time before Windows starts disappearing from the desktop and I seriously doubt it’ll be to the likes of some sloppy mess like Linux but, with Commander Clueless at the helm, will Microsoft even notice the change or will they simply raise prices and bundle more trash with Office and call it a “deal”?

  2. I have little sympathy for Microsoft this time. I put up with their increasingly pathetic Windows Mobile for years, each phone being slower and less capable then the last. Remember the debacle with the video drivers that were suddenly unable to play Microsoft’s own media formats in Microsoft’s own media player? I sure do. Remember how you got one update during the one year supported life of the phone (which you signed a two year contract to get without being raped for it) and that update may or may not actually help anything? I sure do. Remember how Microsoft made the grand announcement that Windows Phone 7 would be different, no more bending over for carriers who want to force you to buy the latest and “greatest” by blocking updates to the phone you already have? I sure do. Five months later my Focus was sitting here on the desk, unused for weeks because I couldn’t take it’s total lack of useful features. I pull out my iPhone, Android tablet, Blackberry…cheap Nokia I bought as a spare…and take a picture because all those settings you have to make to get a passable picture were made 10 minutes after buying the phone and never touched again. Not so with the Focus. Nope…you STILL have to make those same damn settings every time you take a picture. It’s asinine. It was a complete waste of $500 because, oh yes, I bought into the promise and paid full price. It came to represent the lies, the completely wasted $500, the cluelessness…and a week ago I finally threw it away. I didn’t have to “go back” to anything because I hadn’t used it since…oh….December? And if Microsoft ever does get around to releasing a system with some real, competing features, I don’t expect the Focus to receive that update. I expect AT&T to block the update or Microsoft to release some garbage about “user experience” and all that meaningless tripe they always cited with Windows Mobile to explain why the phone you bought six months ago was suddenly so incredibly obsolete that it didn’t deserve the upgrade that those in the UK and Syria were getting. What’s funny is I actually owned the very first Windows phone, that Red-E SC1100, and countless Windows phones and 10 years later I can firmly state that I will never buy another Microsoft mobile device again. Never. They couldn’t pay me to take one because the wasted time and aggravation aren’t worth it.

  3. Duskrider

    It’s also fairly obvious that MS is having trouble flexing properly over the last few years. Mobile phones is only one market of many where absolutely everyone else is eating their lunch. I think their size is really working against them these days. Being so very slow to deploy with any product is proving fairly fatal to them. If it wasn’t for momentum – not innovation – with Windows, Office and server products, they would only have the XBox to tide them over. Problem is, every person that gets a different OS in their hands gets less afraid to migrate away from Windows. It’s really this change in mindset that will cause them the most trouble going forward.

    I truly believe their core products are in grave danger (though not imminently) from this erosion as the only way to get people back once you lose them this way is to knock their socks off, something MS doesn’t seem able to do right now in any area besides XBox.

    For the first time in my 22 year IT consulting career, I have commercial clients asking me about non-Microsoft solutions for both backend and front-end systems. It’s starting with very small organizations but is creeping up. Cloud services are helping push this forward too, as many organizations own SBS servers really just to get Exchange for cheap but hosted Exchange and Google Apps are stealing this market away.

    With MS having little to offer in the mobile space for so long, the trifecta of MS based Server-Workstation-Mobile is gone. In come alternate OS’s on smart phones, OS’s that are perhaps smarter or easier to use than your desktop software, yet seem just as useful. You like that smartphone company and its OS, so you buy their tablet or desktop. The migration begins.

    How does MS pull back from this? I certainly don’t know, but what I do know is that they would really need to help me trust the quality and integrity of their products through very targeted marketing or programs before I’d even look their way again.

  4. “I fully sympathize with Microsoft on the complexity of software updates for smartphones because there are many players involved: consumers, handset makers, and numerous network operators. But I keep coming back to one point in all of this: other companies have proven that they can better manage such updates in a fast-moving and complex environment.”

    I can’t say that I agree with this statement at all. Name one smartphone software company that does not develop its own hardware that has been able to pull of regular updates. There aren’t any. In essence, you have Apple, Nokia, and Palm/HP that control software and hardware, making them able to push updates relatively easily. You have Google Android which has no hardware control, and doesn’t push any updates, instead leaving it up to manufacturers who have little incentive to do anything beyond bug fixes. Then there is MS trying to take the middle road. No, updates are not as available as Apple and that crowd. But the updates are more available than most Android manufacturers provide (i. e. none at all).

    I am not saying that consumers do not have every right to be frustrated. I know that I would if I had a WP7 already. In fact, the update process is the main reason I am still holding off on getting a Windows phone. But the process is very difficult for Micrsoft. And they are not making it any easier by setting goals and deadlines which they never meet. Perhaps the future will be better, but I am only so hopeful.

    • Jay, I see your point, but part of me says that’s it’s really not relevant in 2011. It simply points out that Microsoft thought it could get around the complexities to directly deliver updates but hasn’t quite been successful. That’s the heart of the issue here and while I can (and did) give Microsoft sympathy for the complexity of the situation, that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass because they it chose to take the middle road. The company should have learned from its prior experience in this market as well as how it saw competitors better manage the update process. So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that it has. I think we both agree that other companies do this better – and we can try to excuse it away by Microsoft’s choices, but that doesn’t change the situation in my opinion.