Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse for Windows Phone, Microsoft this week issued a warning that users who used a homebrew tool to update their handsets to the latest software version could have effectively broken the devices, preventing them from receiving future over-the-air software updates. The snafu comes on the heels of rampant delays in delivering the first real software update for the fledgling mobile platform, an update that has been accompanied by a strange veil of silence from the usually transparent company.
"If you attempt one of these homebrew workarounds, we can't say for sure what might happen to your phone because we haven't fully tested these homebrew techniques," Microsoft General Manager Eric Hautala vaguely warned in a blog post. "You might not be getting the important device-specific software we would typically deliver in the official update. Or your phone might get misconfigured and not receive future updates. It's even possible your phone might stop working properly."
Threats aside, it's not hard to notice all the qualifiers in Hautala's statement, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the company's ability to communicate, let alone explain what's really happening with users' phones. Will the "homebrew workaround"—and there was only one such workaround, not "many" as Hautala suggests—actually prevent users from getting future updates? Microsoft doesn't seem to really know. But if this workaround won't break phones, as Microsoft suggests, why does it feel the need to use scare tactics like this?
This latest drama falls on the heels of a Microsoft effort to deliver a small software update, codenamed "NoDo" (or "No Donuts"), which the company completed in December and sent off to its partners for testing. Four long months later, many Windows Phone users still don't have the update, including 100 percent of users on AT&T, Microsoft's "premier" Windows Phone partner. Sources tell me that wireless carriers and hardware makers, predictably, have held up the update-delivery process, leaving Microsoft in a bit of a political bind. It wants to update customers but doesn't want to "out" its slow-moving partners and harm corporate relationships—a situation that has only been exacerbated by Microsoft's special new relationship with Nokia.
So, this week, programmer Chris Walsh released a software utility that will update AT&T users (and others) to the NoDo software update, bypassing blocks put in place by Microsoft on AT&T's behalf. But contrary to the description of this utility—remember, Hautala called it a "homebrew workaround"—Walsh's tool simply utilizes capabilities in Microsoft's publicly released Windows Phone support tools to fetch and install the update. In other words, the workaround just exposes Microsoft functionality. And if it breaks phones as Microsoft says it might, the issue is almost surely with Microsoft's own tools, not with Walsh's.
Of course, Microsoft doesn't really know what's going to happen, or is at the very least not accurately describing it. As Hautala noted, "[Microsoft] can't say for sure what might happen to your phone." Which makes it curious that the company would release a warning at all. Perhaps Microsoft will update the statement once it has had time to fully test things. ("We haven't fully tested these homebrew techniques.")
In any event, Walsh has pulled his utility at Microsoft's request. And the fate of those users who took advantage of the utility is unclear, though it's possible that in a worst-case scenario, they would need to return their phone to the carrier and have the ROM flashed back to the original retail image.
On that note, there is one final bit to report: In Hautala's warning, there is a note about Walsh's update method not delivering "important device-specific software [that Microsoft] would typically deliver in the official update." Here, he is referring to firmware and other carrier- and hardware maker-specific updates that can be and are delivered alongside the generic Microsoft software updates that Windows Phone owners receive. Contrary to Hautala's claims, however, I've already received multiple reports from Samsung Focus owners in Canada who used Walsh's update to receive NoDo and then later synced their phones and received the Focus-specific software Microsoft claims can't be delivered after applying Walsh's update. This doesn't completely disprove Microsoft, as it's possible that this process could fail on other device models and for other updates. But it does cast further doubt on Microsoft's public statements about Windows Phone. I'm guessing that's not the message the company was trying to send to customers.