Partners: Microsoft Needs To Take Carrier Bull By The Horns

Does Microsoft need to take a harder line with carriers on Windows Phone 7 updates? It's a question Microsoft partners are asking as they watch the growing tide of customer anger over Microsoft's 'NoDo' update, which adds copy-and-paste and a host of other performance-related tweaks.

Microsoft earlier this week began rolling out the amusingly named NoDo update, which stands for 'No Donuts,' but only to unbranded and unlocked Windows Phone 7 devices in Europe. Microsoft and its carrier partners AT&T and T-Mobile have been vague on when U.S. customers can expect to receive the update, and the lack of communication isn't going over well with those who’ve bought Windows Phone 7 devices.

"Microsoft hasn't done a good job of communicating its schedule for Windows Phone 7 updates or delivering them in a timely fashion, and this has aggravated customers," said Chris De Herrera, a Los Angeles-based Windows Mobile MVP and editor of the Pocket PC FAQ.

There's a perception among partners and customers that Microsoft, in its efforts to keep carriers happy, has yielded too much control over Windows Phone 7 updates. That's a dangerous strategy, partners say, because Microsoft needs Windows Phone 7 to be a hit and can ill afford the type of negativity that's currently swirling around the NoDo update.

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"The problem is the carriers, who hold up rolling up these types of updates because they want to make sure they work with their network and these updates are compatible," said Clinton Fitch, a Dallas-based Microsoft Windows Mobile MVP (Most Valuable Professional). "I think they have allowed the carriers to dictate things previously in Windows Mobile and have done the same thing in Windows Phone. Microsoft is creating an unnecessary nightmare for themselves."

Aware of the angst, Microsoft on Wednesday launched a new Web site that provides insight on the status of pending Windows Phone 7 updates. According to the site, T-Mobile, which carries the HTC HD7 and Dell Venue Pro, has completed testing of the NoDo update and is scheduling it for delivery to customers in the next 10 days. Sprint's HTC Arrive is the only U.S. carrier device that's shipping with the NoDo update, but it's a CDMA device that requires NoDo in order to function.

But AT&T, which sells three Windows Phone 7 devices -- the Samsung Focus, LG Quantum and HTC Surround -- is still testing the NoDo update, according to the site, which offers no indication of when it might become available to customers. As noted by Ars Technica, Microsoft in a Thursday Twitter post acknowledged that there's "no guarantee" its carrier partners will ever approve the update.

All of this adds a layer of absurdity to AT&T's "premier partner" status for Windows Phone 7 in the U.S.

Next: What AT&T Has To Say About The NoDo Update

AT&T didn't respond to a request for details on the NoDo update release timeframe, but in a thread on Facebook, an AT&T spokesperson has repeatedly posted the following response to angry customers who’ve been clamoring for information: "We know you’re eager to update your devices. As with all updates from manufacturers, carriers need to work closely with the manufacturer to test the update prior to pushing it out to customers."

This kind of response is like throwing gas on a fire at this point, however, and unhappy customers are the last thing Microsoft needs as it tries to claw its way back into mobile industry relevancy. Microsoft partners find it odd that a company that regularly sends updates to hundreds of millions of PCs around the world through Windows Update, and often uses this as an example of its cloud computing prowess, can't manage to handle what is essentially a minor product update.

De Herrera believes Microsoft would be wise to adopt the Apple model for updates, in which updates are made available to all customers as soon as Apple decides they're ready. However, he admits that it'll take some time for Microsoft to develop this level of pull with carriers.

"The carriers view updates as an expense. If the update doesn’t work, they get the calls to fix the devices or provide a workaround and they eat the cost of the support," he said. "So with the carrier’s model, the goal is to up-sell a new phone to resolve consumer issues."

Ironically, the situation stems in part to Microsoft's strong partner focus and the importance it places on these relationships. Andrew Brust, founder of Blue Badge Insights, a New York City-based firm that provides advisory services for Microsoft customers and partners, says Microsoft is trying to create a hybrid of the Google and Apple mobile platform business models.

By accommodating a diversity of OEMs and carriers on the one hand, and maintaining a consistency in experience and handsets on the other, Microsoft is attempting to strike a difficult balance, according to Brust. For example, Microsoft doesn't allow OEMs to customize the Windows Phone 7 interface, but Microsoft can't deploy updates directly to handsets.

Next: How Microsoft Might Adjust Its Approach

"Microsoft takes a very different approach to working with network operators and content companies than does Apple which, frankly, runs roughshod over its partners on occasion," said Brust. "I think this is to Microsoft’s credit by and large, but in instances like the NoDo deployment event, their lack of absolute control can prove frustrating for customers."

In Fitch's opinion, Microsoft would have a difficult time moving to an Apple-like update process even if it wanted to. Google faces a similar problem with Android, as AT&T currently has multiple Android devices running different versions of the OS, which creates confusion among consumers and generates support challenges for OEMs.

"Microsoft and Google both have let the horse out of the barn and it's really tough to rope it in at this point in the game. But they need to do it in order to gain control of the user experience," said Fitch.

Microsoft has issued two updates for Windows Phone 7 and both, for different reasons, have caused trouble for at least some customers. Perhaps these are just part of the road a company has to travel when getting ramped up with a new mobile OS, but the fact remains that Microsoft is once again struggling to get its mobile house in order.

To avoid future update problems, partners say it's clear that Microsoft is going to have to re-evaluate its current policies. "Microsoft’s model will need to evolve in order to smooth over logistics with customers and still be compatible with the partner-driven culture," said Brust.