Windows Update for Windows Phone: This is What You've Been Waiting For
It's a story I need not go into too many details about: anyone who's owned a PDA or phone running Windows Mobile, from the first Pocket PC to the latest Windows Phone 6.5, knows the horrors of device ROM updates. Whether it's a new ROM image designed to fix bugs and enhance performance, or a whole new OS, as buyers of these devices we've always been at the mercy of the device manufacturer and/or the wireless carriers. Who amongst us hasn't raised a fist in anger at being denied a vital software update that would fix a problem with our device? This is how the entire underground ROM scene was born - out of frustration and desperation.
Or, if you were "lucky" enough to have an update offered for your phone, you'd have the pleasure of re-installing and re-configuring everything on your phone; often a process that would take hours. Microsoft's broken model, combined with OEM/carrier refusal to offer updates likely drove more customers away from buying a second Windows Phone than any other factor. We could only look on with envy as our iPhone-using kin happily docked their phones, got an update, and were using it minutes later.
Well, envy begone! Windows Phone 7 solves this pain point once and for all - witness my interview with Andrew Brown, Program Manager for Windows Phone Update, and be amazed...
WPT: Let's start with the best news I've heard about Windows phone 7: how will device updates work now? What will the update mechanism be?
Brown: Like many other things in Windows Phone 7, we're taking a different approach to updates than we have in the past with Windows Mobile. To start with, we're going to leverage the world-class infrastructure we already have with Microsoft Update today and use that to deliver updates directly to Windows Phone 7 phones - no more worries about figuring out where to go to download an update. We're also making it much easier on our partners (OEMs and Mobile Operators) by establishing a single, consistent update process that they can take advantage of, meaning they don't have to be responsible for their own individual update creation and delivery like they've had to do in the past. So it's really a win for everyone.
We've also built in a notification that pops up right on the phone that tells you when an update is available. When you see that, you connect your phone via USB cable to a computer running the Zune client software. At that point it's literally just one click and the update is downloaded and transferred to the phone, a restore point is created, and the update is installed, all done automatically.
WPT: Gone are the days of "You do an update, you wipe everything out on the device". How does the process work now?
Brown: Yes, that was very painful for users, and was one of the most important things on our list to fix for Windows Phone 7. Our new update process won't do anything to your personal data, settings, or installed apps. When the update is complete, you'll be able to use your phone right away, exactly as it was before, along with all the new benefits from the update itself, of course.
WPT: The backup that's made during the update - is that a backup that the user can restore at any time?
Brown: We actually don't refer to it as a "backup" because people have different ideas of what that means - in our case, the intent is very specifically to recover you back to a "snapshot" of the phone taken directly before the update, in case there are any problems as a result of the update process. To answer your question about when you can recover your phone to its previous state: the idea is that even if there's something in an update that is causing you trouble later on - maybe there's a third-party app that you really like that hasn't been updated to be compatible with the latest OS, for example - you can restore your phone back exactly the way it was before the update. In most cases, the restore point will remain on your computer so you'll be able to keep it as long as you want.
WPT: Microsoft creates the update, but does it go right to the phone from Microsoft update servers? Or is there carrier or OEM testing first that has to happen? And if that's the case, knowing the carriers the way we all do, will the process drag out during their phase? Can a carrier stop Microsoft from releasing an update? Or can Microsoft override the carrier in a worst-case scenario?
Brown: In terms of who creates the update, I should clarify that Microsoft is ultimately responsible for "packaging", if you will, the update, as well as delivering it to the phone. But OEMs and Mobile Operators can submit their own update code as part of an overall update that is delivered through Microsoft Update. We definitely will work very closely with our partners to make sure updates are tested thoroughly, but also released in a timely fashion, following standard practices in the industry today for smartphone devices.
WPT: Let's get technical here. One of the reasons we were told the original update model worked the way it did was because Microsoft made the software, then the OEMs had to do their customization of drivers and whatnot for the hardware. We were told a hardware abstraction layer (HAL) was the only way to have Microsoft software work on a variety of hardware without the involvement of the OEMs. Does Windows phone 7 use a HAL, or is it simply that the new hardware specifications for Windows phone 7 are so exact there's no need for OEM involvement at the driver level?
Brown: Our OEMs definitely play an important role in customizing each phone they develop and adding their own unique expertise, including at the driver level. But we've made it a lot easier for them in Windows Phone 7, in part by having more prescriptive guidance for some hardware specifications, and in part by doing some work "under the hood" to provide a little bit of a cleaner separation between Microsoft and OEM software at low levels of the hardware.
WPT: So no over-the-air (OTA) updates then. Why not?
Brown: For our first version, we really wanted a consistent, reliable solution that our customers could trust 100%. Connecting to a computer and using the Zune client software for the update gives us several advantages, including a large screen for the update user interface, the ability to charge the phone while updating, and a full backup of the phone in case any problems occur. However, we've definitely been thinking ahead as we've designed and built our current process, so we won't have to redo a lot of work in order to implement OTA capability in the future.
WPT: After all of the criticism that Microsoft has taken over the years for the way device updates have worked, it must feel great to deliver a solution that will thrill customers. Any closing thoughts?
Brown: Well, I'm not going to declare victory until I can come back to the community and hear everyone's feedback on how we did once we've shipped. But the great thing is that when we need to make improvements, we've now got a solid process for doing so!
WPT: Thanks for your time Andrew!
Screenshots of the process were also provided - check them out below.
Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys photography, mobile devices, blogging, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, his wonderful son Logan, and his sometimes obedient dog. He's mostly digging Windows Phone 7 so far.
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