Windows Phone 7 Update Issues Hint at Major Growing Pains

Microsoft's issues with Windows Phone 7's software updates suggest a platform still feeling out its path to maturity. Will consumers give it the benefit of the doubt?

This week, Microsoft began pushing through its long-awaited "NoDo" update for Windows Phone 7, although device owners in the United States could have a longer wait before receiving theirs.

The "NoDo" update includes cut-and-paste and improvements to Messaging, WiFi and Outlook. It tweaks the "stability of switching between camera and video modes," according to information posted on Microsoft's Windows Phone Website, and the experience of syncing Facebook accounts.

The big question is when it'll arrive on peoples' smartphones, something Microsoft tried to answer this week with a pair of charts detailing the update status for customers in both the United States and around the world. Each chart breaks down the update path into three categories:

Testing, i.e., the update is undergoing network and quality tests.

Scheduling, i.e., Microsoft is scheduling the update for delivery-a process the charts suggest will take "10 days or less."

Delivering, i.e., the smartphone should receive the update-at some point. "Because updates are typically delivered to customers in batches," the chart explains, "it might take several weeks before you receive notice that an update is available to you."

According to Microsoft's chart for the United States, the HTC Surround, LG Quantum and Samsung Focus are all apparently in "Testing" for both the February software update (designed to pave the way for future updates) and the March "NoDo" update (includes both cut-and-paste and feature tweaks). The Dell Venue Pro and HTC HD7 are at the "Scheduling" stage for both updates. The HTC Arrive comes with both updates, excluding it from the list.

Perhaps tellingly, no Windows Phone 7 devices in the United States have reached the "delivering" stage for either the February or March update. By contrast, on the worldwide chart, all open-market phones are apparently in the process of delivering the March update, and the majority of countries' smartphones are delivering the February update (on top of reaching the "scheduling" milestone for the March one).

Microsoft's February update, designed to help with future updates, stalled a small number of users' smartphones and led to roughly two days worth of drama on Microsoft's online help forums. In the wake of that, Microsoft seemed more cautious in how it proceeded with "NoDo," even pushing the release date back from the first two weeks of March to the latter half of the month.

"After careful consultation with the team and our many partners, we've decided to briefly hold the March update in order to ensure the update process meets our standards and that of our customers," a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a March 10 e-mail to eWEEK. "As a result, we will plan to begin delivering the update in the latter half of March."

Does Microsoft have a problem here? Some eWEEK readers think so.

"Does Microsoft have trouble attracting competent employees?" wrote one commenter on a Windows Phone 7 article from earlier this week. "Why are they moving so slowly? I'm ashamed to be an early adopter, having been fooled into thinking Microsoft was serious about mobile this time."

Or another: "Copy/Paste will be the one and only feature Microsoft achieved since WP7 went RTM in Aug 2010, until Mango in 2012. Uncompetitive."

While that's not necessarily a representative sample of Windows Phone 7 users, it suggests Microsoft could be on the verge of a perception issue with its newest smartphone platform. Rarely have its rivals encountered such highly publicized problems with updates, although a subset of Android users regularly complain of how their carriers are slow to upgrade their devices to the latest version of Google's operating system.

The updating issues also threaten to counter Microsoft's earlier claim that the tightly enforced Windows Phone 7 platform will avoid the fragmentation and inconsistent software updating that helped wreck the now-antiquated Windows Mobile. If different devices on different carriers push through different software updates at different times, it undermines the perception that Microsoft-and not the carriers and manufacturers-is ultimately the final arbiter of its own software's roadmap. That Microsoft executives have spent months pillorying Android for its own fragmentation issues is an irony that will surely be lost on nobody if the Windows Phone 7 family becomes disjointed.

And a problem at this early stage-or the perception of a problem-could have major repercussions for Microsoft as it attempts to claw away market share from those well-entrenched rivals. Windows Phone 7's task in its first few quarters of release was to build political capital with consumers and businesses, something achievable largely through pitch-perfect execution.

"To bring the platform rapidly to a level of parity with other major mobile platforms, Microsoft will need to deliver several key features in the first quarter of 2011," IDC analyst Al Hilwa wrote in a December 2010 research note. "Down the road, Microsoft's success will be measured by the speed at which it can broaden its country, carrier and device portfolios, and the pace of deliver of new capabilities in its software."

For the second half of 2011, Microsoft has scheduled updates for multitasking, Twitter integration, and other vital features. Much depends on the company executing these in a consistent manner.