After weeks of silence, Microsoft last week confirmed that its first real software update for Windows Phone 7—code-named No Donuts (or just NoDo)—was delayed from its most recent release date, March 7, to the second half of March. But the company denied that its inability to ship NoDo would impact the schedule for Windows Phone 7's first major update—called Mango, and due by the end of 2011.
As I reported previously, Microsoft completed NoDo in December 2010 but has been unable to deliver the update to customers ever since. Sources at the software giant tell me that two or more wireless-carrier partners have blocked the update, an ability Microsoft executives previously confirmed was their contractual right. But the reasons for this blocking are unclear, and as the months have ticked by, Microsoft and its customers have become more and more frustrated by this situation.
The issue is simple: NoDo is a very minor update, with few bug fixes and only three new features: basic copy-and-paste functionality, faster app launching, and more granular Marketplace searching. But because Windows Phone shipped in a buggy and incomplete state in October 2010, customers have expected Microsoft to move quickly to add features and fix bugs. Since the launch, however, Windows Phone has remained essentially unchanged. (Some customers did receive a bug-fix "pre-update" recently that is supposed to pave the way for NoDo.)
And Microsoft is indeed frustrated. The company has lashed out at this author in recent days, denying—among other things—my reports about carrier blocking, NoDo delays, and more recent reports that Mango could be delayed to 2012.
It's time to address Microsoft's statements about these claims.
Carriers can block Windows Phone 7 updates and have blocked NoDo. NoDo, which Microsoft now refers to as the "cut-and-paste update," has been delayed, most recently, from "the first half of March" until the "latter half of March." Microsoft has yet to explain exactly why this update has been delayed for so long, and—for what are presumably relationship reasons—has never publicly fingered its partners as the cause. Instead, company representatives note the "reasonably complex ecosystem" by which updates must travel from the software giant to its customers. "Coordinating \\[the\\] ecosystem to the acceptance needs of \\[wireless\\] operators is a complex challenge," Eric Hautala, the General Manager of Customer Experience Engineering for Windows Phone, said recently on a corporate podcast, implicitly admitting that carrier "needs" are responsible for the delays.
"Operators are tremendously concerned about the quality of any device that run\\[s\\] on their network," Hautala added. "In working with operators, there are acceptance rights, a test process, an acceptance process. Just like they \\[the wireless carriers\\] schedule the launch of a new phone in their retail locations, they need to test and schedule the acceptance of any sort of update onto their network."
Basically, this is simply a matter of semantics. Where I use the word "block," Microsoft uses the terms "validate" and "acceptance." I will point out that I didn't pull the word "block" out of thin air, however: This word came from Microsoft representatives at an October 2010 reviewer workshop. So what we have here, I think, is a bit of Microsoft beckpedaling aimed at smoothing out its partner relationships over a hot-button topic. Where I see "blocking," Microsoft sees multiple parties "looking out for the users of Windows Phone." Or, at least that's what it says publicly.
When confronted by "the carriers' ability to block updates" on this same podcast, however, Microsoft Product Manager Greg Sullivan—who was present at the October reviewers workshop mentioned above—said that there is "an industry-wide practice" of involving the carriers in the software-updating process. "Folks don't ship new smartphone operating system software without the carriers being involved and certifying that," he said. "This idea that somehow other companies are able to just circumvent mobile operators ... without their consent is just not true."
It's unclear, then, how Apple's has been able to ship several iOS updates directly to iPhone users since Windows Phone launched. Perhaps the carriers are simply more trusting of Apple than they are of Microsoft.
I'm not hugely concerned that Microsoft conveniently ignores the inconvenient truths about Apple, which has moved far more quickly than Microsoft, even with its more mature platform. But then Sullivan goes on to defame me. "Some folks have allegedly said that carriers do have the ability to block," he said, clearly referring to my reports that Microsoft Corporate VP Joe Belfiore said just that in front of dozens of reviewers last fall. "I think that is not accurate. In the one case that's referred to on the blog posts, I was actually in the room when that discussion took place, and Joe B. mentioned that carriers would be testing our updates and that there may be a scenario where, depending on the timing of updates ... I don't think Joe ever said that there's this notion that carriers could block updates. We work closely with our partners to test this, to make sure it doesn't adversely their networks and their customers. And that's an industry-standard practice."
Aside from the personal implications of these comments—I reported Belfiore's comments accurately, and Sullivan was indeed in the room at the time—what we're dealing with, again, is a matter of semantics. And while the company's stance is understandable (Microsoft is of course careful about not harming its relationships with partners, especially in the wake of the blockbuster Nokia deal, which has surely harmed some of the prior Windows Phone partner relationships), it's unclear why Microsoft couldn't present this topic in that fashion. Both Hautala and Sullivan have said that partners can prevent Microsoft from shipping updates to customers. They just don't use the word "block." Capiche?
Mango could be delayed from late 2011 to early 2012. I've also mentioned recently that Microsoft may delay the first major Windows Phone 7 update, called Mango, from its planned late 2011 launch until early 2012. Note that I haven't written that Microsoft will delay Mango—only that two sources within the software giant have told me that it's a possibility.
Microsoft denies this possibility and maintains that Mango is on track for a late-2011 release. Fair enough. I'm simply passing along what I've heard, and from more than one source. But I'd also note that Microsoft Director Brandon Watson said publicly that Mango could ship in 2012, and not 2011. "The next major release \\[of Windows Phone\\], I don't know if we have an official date, let's call it later this year," he said in a video interview during Mobile World Congress last month in Barcelona. "Just to be safe, sometime later this year. Or early next year. You know, coming in the next major release."
So, to reiterate: I'm not saying Mango is coming in 2012, I'm saying that sources told me it could be delayed until 2012. And based on this video, Microsoft is saying it's a possibility as well. In other public statements, the company has stuck to its plan to deliver Mango in 2011.
There are many more questions around Windows Phone 7, of course, including whether there are going to be any updates between NoDo and Mango (unlikely, in my opinion), whether Microsoft will break the chain on its monolithic update process and deliver a steady stream of at least bug fixes to customers (also unlikely), and whether Microsoft will finally open up and at least become more transparent about its plans, regardless of how slow-moving it might seem to be. I actually have some hope about that latter bit. Because, despite the odd personal attacks I've sustained this week at the hands of the software giant, at least the company is talking. And that's really been my first goal all along: Get Microsoft to open up more about what it's doing and to keep its customers informed.