There’s been a lot of stupidity around the interwebs this week regarding wireless carriers and their ability to block Microsoft from supplying Windows Phone 7 users with software updates. On the extreme left, we have people claiming that Microsoft “owns” the update servers and can thus do whatever they want (i.e bypass wireless carriers can deliver updates to users whenever they want). On the far right, those who claim that the wireless carriers can, in fact, block software updates and prevent their customers from getting them.
So which view is correct?
Both of them, as it turns out. And neither of them, because neither of those statements explains what’s really happening.
Here’s what’s really happening.
Yes, Microsoft does “own” the software update servers, and software updates will be delivered to users from Microsoft, and not from the wireless carriers. However, wireless carriers can also, in fact, block updates from reaching their customers. They can do so for one update cycle only, so if they do block an update, it will be automatically offered the next time a software update is released. And this is true whether the updates are delivered over-the-air (using the wireless carriers’ 3G networks, as they can be for updates under 20 MB in size) or via the Zune PC software (using your broadband provider and USB connectivity between the device and the PC).
Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Microsoft corporate vice president Joe Belfiore.
Here’s how Belfiore described this situation to me and other reviewers the day after Windows Phone 7 launched in the US. These are very nearly his exact words, as I take excellent notes. The bolded items for emphasis are my own. Please understand that I made a considerable scene over this topic, returning to it again and again because it was contrary to what I had been told previously, and pretty much grinding the whole thing to a a halt. It was uncomfortable for everyone, and I’m not proud of it, but it needed to be done.
“We build an update for everyone, and certify them with carriers,” he said. “They’re on a regular cadence as they are 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,” he added. “If a 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,” he said. “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. 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.”
So why give carriers this control, I asked. 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.” (But they’re not doing that. Perhaps the situation will change if carriers start blocking too many updates. This, frankly, is my expectation.)
But who is in control here?, I asked, the carrier, Microsoft or the user?
“In theory, the user,” he said, which caused a lot of laughter, as you might imagine. “Carriers get that the end users want this value. With Windows Mobile, the carriers were pretty righteous to test all the time … They do take the support calls.”
When the representative from AT&T finally got a word in edgewise, he said that “AT&T has changed its testing processes to match the needs of the market, and the needs of Windows Phone. We plan on continuing to follow the new model going forward with regards to software update. [i.e. will not turn off software updates to force device upgrades.] We will churn things around more quickly than we did in the past. Updates extend user value, and make for happy subscribers. We are jointly incented.”
Here are some other general comments from Belfiore around Windows Phone software updates:
On the first software update” “We are shipping a compelling update very, very soon.”
Compared to how Apple updates their phones: “Our mechanism works like Apple’s. we host them on our servers and deploy them to customers.”
On unlocked devices, as noted above: “Unlocked devices get updates directly from Microsoft. They’re available around the world, but not in the US right now. They could sell them though.”
On the relationship with AT&T, whom I particularly hammered on updating: “AT&T is a close partner. We built a pretty amazing lab, for automated device testing. We are running AT&T’s reliability tests for our own benefit. We do an update, do a new build of the software, either an incremental or a full update, and as part of the normal software testing process, we’re automated with AT&Ts [testing] stuff too. We submit to AT&T the results from our tests and from their own test suites. They can run the tests too or not.”
On the end user update experience. “A new update goes out, it’s propagated to Windows Update. When you use the phone, you get an over-the-air notification. The update is performed via USB. The update works like it does on the Zune HD.”
I assume this is the end of the questions about this topic. Beyond the possibility that Microsoft could in the future choose to bypass the carriers for updates, this is exactly where things stand right now.