The truth about Windows Phone 7, software updates, and carriers’ ability to block those updates

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.

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47 Responses to The truth about Windows Phone 7, software updates, and carriers’ ability to block those updates

  1. Rich says:

    On the first software update” “We are shipping a compelling update very, very soon.”

    Awesome – instant new goodness!!! :)

  2. rwalrond says:

    Paul, what about us developers? Will we have to wait for our carriers to push out an update before we can install the next version? Will Microsoft release the updates to developers before the general public like Apple does?
    And as a side note, do you know why they have disabled Bing Voice Search on the Canadian phones? Apparently even changing the region on the HTC phones will not unlock the feature. What gives?

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      No, this is for system software update, not updates to apps.

      • rwalrond says:

        Not talking about apps. For example when Apple is getting ready to release a new system software update, developers get access to the new version to test their apps on it. Assuming Microsoft will be adding some new features with these updates, will they allow developers early access before the general public.

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        Ah, sorry. That I don’t know.

      • rwalrond says:

        Thank you Paul for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m hoping you could ask the question the next time you bring one of those meetings to a grinding hault. And Here in Canada the HTC phones have no Voice Search in Bing, Yet the LG phones do. I thought the Handset makers couldn’t alter the way the OS works?

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        So, clearly there is a list of things they can change. And clearly–and I say this despite the fact that Microsoft has yet to respond in a meaningful way to this question–changing the browser search engine (but not the global Search button functionality) is one of those things.

    • Rafael says:

      Let’s hope to be that way. In any case, that would be useful in case of changes relating to Apps performance, i.e. multitasking, copy-paste, etc. So well, it would be better that way in order to push forward the marketplace growth.

  3. pcconnector says:

    You have your left and right mixed up

  4. dmw4814 says:

    Paul,

    I read this post and have decided to take some time out from my VERY labor intensive job of adding my contacts to my phone (more on that in a minute!) to give my thoughts on the HTC HD7 phone I purchased on Monday. Overall, I love Windows Phone 7! The interface is beautiful, like a breath of fresh air, and the Zune music player integration is awesome! I also swapped-out the pre-installed 16GB MicroSD card for a SanDisk 32GB MicroSD card and, so far, have had zero problems! In fact, when I first booted it up after swapping the cards, the only error message I received was that the SIM card was missing as I had inadvertantly put it back in the wrong way. After fixing that mistake, I did a hard reset and the phone has worked just fine, even after syncing a large amount of music to it via the Zune software.

    Now, about the contact management on this phone – it’s horrible!! Well, more correctly, it’s not how the contacts are handled on the phone itself that’s bad – it’s getting them ONTO the phone correctly that’s bad!! Taking away the ability to directly sync the phone with a desktop version of Outlook was the worst possible thing that Microsoft could’ve done to me!! Now, what should’ve literally taken me about a minute to do is now going to take me about a week or so to get done! I have about 775 contacts in my Outlook program on my phone, and I had also previously exported those contacts to my Gmail account ( a mojor undertaking in and of itself!), as I moved to this phone from a Droid X phone. I tried importing my Gmail contacts to the Windows Phone 7 device, but a great deal did not come over correctly – they were missing various fields such as a phone number or an address (I believe this was because I created custom labels such as “business” or “store” for the phone number and addresse fields of certain contacts in Gmail, which the phone didn’t recognize). Also, the complete addresses of ALL the contacts were listed in the street address field, and the city, state and ZIP fields were blank. So, I tried importing my Gmail contacts into Windows Live, which itself turned-out to be a disaster! Of 775 contacts, Windows Live reported it imported only about 589!! I believe this was because it merged multiple contacts for places like individual Pilot Travel Centers (I drive a tractor trailer) and individual Walmart stores into one single contact for each, although I’m not positive about that. Now, I am left with the tedious task of entering EACH INDIVIDUAL contact into Windows Live so that they show-up correctly on my phone. But, even that isn’t a guarantee – Windows Live obviously has a character limit for some fields such as Name as it cuts off part of some of the names I’m entering, so I’m having to manually edit the contact from within the phone (which DOES allow me to enter the entire name in the Name filed)!

    I admit I’m a bit more “anal” than most in regards to this, but all my troubles with this issue could’ve been avoided if they just allowed the phone to be synced with Outlook!

    Dennis

    • billwil says:

      “Really?” Yes…that was a joke. I gotta tell you, though, Dennis. Local storage of contacts, email, calendar, etc. is a thing of the past. While not everyone (you, for example) has moved on, in my opinion it just doesn’t make sense anymore for WP7 (or any new smartphone) to support a fading use case. Just think how much better it will be once you get everyone sorted in “the cloud”. No more dependence on a single device or local storage. I realize it’s painful right now, but just look at it as the push you needed to come into the 21st century. (I hope you know that last jab was in jest…). :) Happy trails…and good luck with the transfer.

      Bill~

    • Dennis

      I think there maybe an easier way but I haven’t tried it in a while.

      What if you installed the Outlook Connector in Outlook and connect it to your Hotmail account. That way both accounts show in Outlook.

      I believe you can then copy/paste the contacts from one account (Outlook) to the other (Hotmail) with out re-entering them. Then do a Send/Receive to get everything pushed back up to Hotmail.

      -Scott

    • nicholas1029 says:

      Have you tried going directly from Outlook to Windows Live (rather than use Gmail as a middleman)? This article should be helpful:

      http://www.winsupersite.com/mobile/wp_cloud.asp

    • dkb1898 says:

      See Below, much easier way to do this…I did it about a year ago so I wouldn’t have to backup that nagging pst file.

    • fluidosity says:

      This is what I did as I too have many contacts in Outlook.

      Export your Contacts list from Outlook to a csv file. Then, use the import functionality for Outlook in Live Contatcts.

      Took me about 30 minutes to export, import and fix over 600 contacts.

      Hope this helps,
      -Curtis

      • fluidosity says:

        Although, I have found a couple if things I need to fix since. But it has only taken a few minutes when I find something.

  5. dmw4814 says:

    Sorry about the spelling mistakes, but I’m in a huge hurry to get back to my FUN project of typing 775 contacts into Windows Live! :-)

    Dennis

    • dkb1898 says:

      Dude, export your contacts from Outlook into a csv and import them into your live account. It takes literally 5 minutes…why are you torturing yourself?

      • dmw4814 says:

        I have tried exporting my contacts directly from Outlook to Windows Live, but it fails EVERY SINGLE time!! I get a message that IE cannot display the webpage and when I go back to my contacts, only the contacts I manually entered are there!

        It’s kind of ridiculous that 2 different MICROSOFT products do not work together!

        Dennis

      • dkb1898 says:

        Have you tried adding the live account to outlook with the outlook connector? You may even be able to just drag and drop contacts from your outlook account(pst file) right into live contacts. No web needed!

      • dkb1898 says:

        Yup, I just added my live account to my work outlooks, and dragged a few contacts over and hit the control key (so it would copy them not move them). Moved them right over to my live account.

        Took me about a minute, and the copy took about 0 seconds.

    • dkb1898 says:

      Also, if you use outlook connector and hook outlook up to your windows live account, you can set your main contact manager up as windows live. Thus when you update contacts, your updating them in outlook, but they sync seamlessly to your online live account, which will then sync seamlessly to your phone…no importing, exporting, or syncing.

      I have outlook 2010 set up like this, BUT use Google as my main email account. The only thing I have to occasionally do if export my live contacts over to gmail, so I can get to them if I’m not on my home computer but I’m using the web interface at work, etc…

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  7. dmw4814 says:

    Paul,

    I also wanted to let you know something else – I have 5 different Time Warner e-mail accounts and 1 Gmail account. I have the Gmail set-up so it also delivers a copy of every message I receive to any of my 5 Time Warner accounts into my Gmail inbox, right alongside any messages I receive to my Gmail address. You previously told me that if I added my Google account to the Windows Phone 7 device, my Time Warner e-mails wouldn’t show-up in my inbox on the phone – that is NOT correct. ALL the e-mails that show-up in my Gmail inbox on my PC also show-up in my phone inbox, too. So, it’s sort of like I have one unified inbox for 6 different e-mail accounts, even though that’s not the way the phone is intended to handle different e-mail accounts!

    Dennis

  8. dkb1898 says:

    Back on topic, vs things that can be googled. Paul are you trying to hint to us that an update is coming very soon, and your currently playing around with it ;) I assume it would be wise for them to get an update out before Black Friday.

    “We are shipping a compelling update very, very soon.” – Joe Belfiore

    I’m assuming very, very soon isn’t January…otherwise Joe needs to be wiser with his words.

    • dkb1898 says:

      P.S. Paul mentioned in his podcast that he’s not getting as good battery life anymore with his phone, this was mentioned around the time he was talking about updates to windows phone. I took this as a secretive way of saying he’s testing a new version of the software that includes flash…all the recent news about flash draining battery life. Actually content drains battery life!

      Maybe I’m reading to much in between the lines ;)

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        I think you’re reading too much into this, yes. :)

      • nulldev2010 says:

        Paul, I saw you playing with the white background theme on your Focus in a recent podcast. S-AMOLED displays consume more power (more than LCD) if you have a lot of whites. On the other hand, it consumes less power than LCD for blacks. If battery life is a concern to you, I’d make sure to avoid the white theme.

      • Paul Thurrott says:

        Thanks, yeah, I am aware of that. I’ve been using the black background lately.

  9. efjay1 says:

    Paul, is the Dell Venue Pro considered an unlocked device since its not sold directly by T-Mobile? Indeed, those who have one state an at&t sim works, of course only on EDGE. That would make it the first WP7 unlocked device in the US.

  10. Rafael says:

    Haha. Never know what to expect from Paul hidden intentions.

    Back into the Outlook topic, actually I had today this mindf***. I am actually using Outlook 2010 to sync with my BB Storm (x64 so I’ve to use an intermediary to get it working) and it works pretty well that part, also calendary its really great. But I’ve an issue with gmail account, it takes really unnatural time to load the account (IMAP) and it doesn’t “open” the folders when I start Outlook, but it opens @live and university accounts, and pretty fast (non IMAP).

    Then I decided today to give a shot to Windows Live Mail, which actually “looks” more actual, with fancy transitions and so on, also having in mind the idea that probably WLMail syncs with Live Contacts and Calendar and that would sync with my hopefully future acquisition of a WP7 (next 6 or 7 months). The curious thing is that Gmail account works perfectly on WLMail, but obviously Outlook is much more complete than WLMail, so now I’m installing 32bits version in order to check if makes gmail account runs smoother (I hardly doubt it anyway).

    So I don’t think it would be a big problem to allow managing contacts of W.Phones from Outlook, but It’s clearly far from the new Microsoft policy of the OS.

    Anyway, If Live contacts are synced, you can edit Live contacts online, can’t you? (I don’t know about that much, just guessing).

    Greetings

  11. roncerr says:

    I think we are getting too worked up over so-called “updates”. Windows Live Mail and Messenger are good examples. The forums are full of complaints of how the 2011 update was horrible and people asking how to switch back to the previous version. Many just want Windows Mail and preferably Outlook Express to be available.

  12. Bryant Avey says:

    This was very interesting Paul. I appreciate you fighting for clarity on this topic for us.

    I’ve been using my WP for a week now and love everything except the lack of visual voicemail and copy paste. There are a few apps I miss from my iPhone, but I expect these to be available soon.

    I love the WP web browser. I’m posting this message from my WP.

    Thanks again for the info and your insight.

  13. Skip Purdy says:

    Paul – I think you’re missing a critical piece of the business model in all this: the carriers burden the support for the phones, not Microsoft. Given the fact that the phone is being actively marketed to the less-than-smartphone user, carriers have every incentive to absolutely get the user experience right. If that means they have to insert some level of control in order to stablize the support experience, then so be it.

    I think the power user experience is and should be a completely different ball game – and perhaps Microsoft is missing the opportunity to have power users control the upgrade experience.

    Finally, you seem to be harping on AT&T in this post, but his issue applies equally to T-Mobile, Telus, O2, or any WP7 carrier. They all share the responsibility here.

    • Paul Thurrott says:

      Microsoft made the platform. They either support this or they don’t. I agree end user support comes from the carriers. That doesn’t absolve Microsoft.

      I “harp” on AT&T because they publicly stated this was fine when it wasn’t. And then they had to hurriedly retract that statement. All wireless carriers are horrible in their own ways, I’m sure.

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