Windows Phone 7 and OS updates: lots of speculation, little to go on

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how updates will work on Windows Phone 7. Now there's talk about talk about talk in Ars Technica's latest article on the subject. Much of this we find amusing but not too illuminating. Still, we'll take a crack at why some of this is wrong and misguided.

The issue, we believe, starts from what Microsoft's Charlie Kindel said awhile back about WP7:

"We want everyone on the same version of the OS." He continued, "Updates will be available through the Zune desktop or over the air." Larger updates would be handled through the Zune software while minor updates would be handled OTA.

Recently however, Windows Phone Thoughts had an in-depth interview with Andrew Brown, Program Manager for Windows Phone Update who stated that OTA updates are now out of the picture.

Reason? Read more to find out why and why some of Ars Technica's arguments are either incorrect or unimportant.

So the justification by Microsoft for shelving OTA updates is due to them having concerns about reliability. From that same interview, Microsoft's Brown continues:

For our first version, we really wanted a consistent, reliable solution that our customers could trust 100%. Connecting to a computer and using the Zune client software for the update gives us several advantages, including a large screen for the update user interface, the ability to charge the phone while updating, and a full backup of the phone in case any problems occur.

Basically, Microsoft considers the OTA program a little too risky on their 1st generation OS and would prefer tethered updates through Zune. However, the framework is there for when they do want to jump to OTA. Fair enough, we say. Could you imagine an OTA update bricking thousands of devices and the bad press that would give? So you need to sync with your PC to update--that was a given anyways for large firmware updates. Now you'll have to do it for those potential Mobile Internet Explorer updates or other fixes.

But we take big issue with this Ars's statement:

We were originally promised iPhone-like upgrades for Windows Phone 7. Better, in fact, due to the over-the-air updating. And we're not going to get it.

This is a false assertion. Who exactly made that promise? We were hard pressed to find this quote or implication anywhere. The closest was Kindel's statement above. But that's not iPhone-like at all. The only mention of carriers was not a quote from Kindel but the author's own words. Mind you, that was before the OS went Gold and yes, sometimes plans change during development. This happens all the time and we figured people we be used to that now. But saying we were promised this feature by Microsoft is going a bit far in this case.

Second, they spend a lot of time over a quote from Microsoft's Joe Belfiore at the reviewers workshop where he said "Carriers could in fact block updates to sell you a phone. That can happen." That's quite revealing and newsworthy. Except for the followup, which they de-emphasized: "But we don't expect that to happen."

Granted, that is an interesting revelation. Almost. We don't even know what it really means since that all we have on the matter. All we know is Microsoft doesn't expect it to happen--so why should we? Heading back to the interview with Microsoft's Brown, he mentions this:

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.

The carriers, Microsoft and OEMs are all partners here. That's not the iPhone-model where they run roughshod over AT&T (well, except when allegedly colluding on blocking VOIP solutions). And no one said they would be like Apple in this regard. Carriers are not expected to purposefully block an update and it would be very bad press in such a competitive market as today. Not to mention, one would think Microsoft would not be too pleased either.

Finally, all we know is we don't know. Microsoft is constantly evolving, evidently changing day by day. While we have no love for the carriers and prefer the dumb-pipe model too, we understand that pushing them out of the picture 100% is not an option. Not immediately at least. The fact that we don't' have bloatware on our phones and we can uninstall all software (including carrier bundled software) is already a huge victory. How about we let the dust settle on v1.0 and wait and see what actually happens, then discuss? Seems a lot more productive than breaking down English imperatives in an attempt to find the truth value of statements, like we were in Semantics 101.

Now pardon us, we have phones to play with.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • Wasn't it also said at the PDC they just had, or a bit before that, that while a Carrier could block a specific update, they can only block that update ONCE and that when the next update cycle comes around they HAVE TO send the update out then? This seems to be part of MS' licensing with the OEMs and Carriers, though in the end if you get a phone unlocked without a carrier deal you will just get all the updates directly from MS once they're pushed out. As for the OTA bit, it does make sense, specially for big updates, I think app only updates like for MIE can still probably go down OTA but to play it safe it's better to connect it to the PC for now so the Zune software can also make a full backup (which is very important for big OS updates) so IF something gets borked you can rollback to before the update. I'd rather have this full backup safe guard rather then the possibility of a OTA update that could fully brick my phone with no way to restore a backup.
  • Right, there's that aspect too about them having to do an update on the 2nd round. It will be interesting to see how the carriers respond with this, but they have less and less reason to "hold up" releases these days. With customization largely out of their hand, there is little for them to do. That's a drastic change for them and one that benefits everyone. As far as tethering to update, considering I see that happening only a few times a year, it's not that big of deal for myself.
  • Great article!! When you think of it, syncing your to your pc for big updates outweighs the alternative of chancing it OTA. Smart move MS.
  • I think Microsoft is taking the path of doing things solid as stones, with good performance, then introducing improves with time, and testing pretty much those updates before doing them. So probably with time we'll see those OTA for small updates, but being able to do them all from Zune at least, is good. I'd say something to Microsoft from here, Zune is pretty cool right now, but its on ur hands make it the All-in-one media center for many people.
  • here is a link that might clear things up
  • Great article. I can understand why they wouldn't want OTA system updates. Half the time I installed anything on my former phone OTA, I had to reinstall due to errors in the transfer at some point. Errors that never happened when doing a PC update. A 6MB app running into OTA problems is one thing; another is having a system crash because of a 90MB system update. And I fully agree: being able to get rid of the provider's bloatware is a huge, huge improvement. I still have nightmares about "hiding" crap apps on my BB.
  • "But we take big issue with this Ars's statement: We were originally promised iPhone-like upgrades for Windows Phone 7. Better, in fact, due to the over-the-air updating. And we're not going to get it. This is a false assertion. Who exactly made that promise? We were hard pressed to find this quote or implication anywhere." Actually it was Steve Ballmer himself at a joint Microsoft/AT&T press conference on October 11, 2010. There are many other examples. In general, corporations change course, Steve Ballmer in particular. When has he ever lived up to presentations at CES? Daniel, I do take exception with your assertion that "Finally, all we know is we don't know." Microsoft made it plain at the Windows Phone 7 reviewers' workshop (where you there?) I present here a quote lifted from the same Ars Technica article:
    "At the Windows Phone 7 reviewers' workshop, the new situation was clearly explained by Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president and director of Windows Phone Program Management. Paul Thurrott quoted Belfiore in his review of the operating system: 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."