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Old 08-05-2008, 09:30 PM
Jason Dunn
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Default The Broken Ecosystem for Windows Mobile Updates

Another interesting discussion came up on the private Mobius discussion list, and my response was a bit long so I thought it was worth sharing here. One of the Mobius group members made a comment about how it was time for something to be done to separate the firmware from the customizations that operators made - allowing for easy OS and application updates. My response, slightly expanded for public consumption...

We were at that point back in 2001 when some of the first generation Pocket PCs were denied upgrades to the new OS. This has been a sore point for Windows Mobile from the start.

iPhone = Two phones + one OS + one company = easy updates

Zune = Three devices + one OS + one company = easy updates

Windows Mobile = Dozens (hundreds?) of phones + two OS' + dozens of companies = nightmare update scenario

This issue has come up time and time again: because of all the different phone hardware, and the low-level software customization required for drivers and whatnot, OS updates and even simple patches are much more complicated than they could be if the underlying system was simpler. Every time there's a new version of Windows Mobile, we hear that updates are going to be made easier, but it never seems to translate into actual updates for users. Someone smarter than me can probably explain this, but on desktop PCs (at least with Windows) you have a hardware abstraction layer (HAL) that takes care of certain important things related to hardware and software talking to each other. Here's part of the Wikipedia definition:

"A hardware abstraction layer (HAL) is an abstraction layer, implemented in software, between the physical hardware of a computer and the software that runs on that computer. Its function is to hide differences in hardware from most of the operating system kernel, so that most of the kernel-mode code does not need to be changed to run on systems with different hardware. On a PC, HAL can basically be considered to be the driver for the motherboard and allows instructions from higher level computer languages to communicate with lower level components, such as directly with hardware."It's easiest to understand the HAL by thinking about the fact that you can install Windows on tens of thousands of different types of PCs, from old to new, and there's usually some generic driver that will give you basic functionality. There is no HAL on Windows Mobile phones, so every chip that's different from one phone to the next requires customized software and firmware. This means extra work for the OEMs, and every OEM has to decide if it makes business sense for them to put the resources into developing the update. We've all seen the results of that.

Why isn't there a HAL for Windows Mobile? Adding a HAL would reduce performance and efficiency, worsening battery life and speed - one estimate I heard was 20%. I'd gladly take a 20% hit in battery life and performance if it meant receiving regular updates from Microsoft to a Microsoft operating system. Would you? That's the question that Microsoft should be asking users. The phone networks probably could care less, because they don't make money off updates, but Microsoft should care because it's their operating system. Microsoft ceded too much control to the phone networks - they had to do that to get into the game years ago, but now that they're an established player in the market, it's time to regain control of the customer and their operating system. It's a matter of brand control and customer perception - when something goes wrong on their Windows Mobile phone, the customer isn't going to mutter a curse at Verizon or T-Mobile - they're going to mutter that curse at Microsoft.

There's also no good distribution mechanisms for updates either: iPhone users connect to iTunes, get notified of updates, and install them - all without losing any data. Windows Mobile users? Only the geeky ones hear about AKU updates or OS updates and track them down either on the phone network sites, or maybe the OEM sites if they're lucky. And they'll probably have to re-install all their programs and re-sync all their data. What kind of a system is that? And I haven't even mentioned the mockery that is the never-used device-side Windows Update. If the user were to be notified about a new version of their operating system when they connect to Windows Mobile Device Center for instance (great idea Rocco!), and given the option to purchase it, I'm certain the OEMs would see more revenue for their efforts. Microsoft needs to solve the problem of updates wiping out user data as well - that's just ridiculous. Who would have installed Vista SP1 if it meant re-loading the whole damn operating system?

The Windows Mobile system for updates is broken from top to bottom. Too much power is in the hands of the phone networks, and Microsoft hasn't done enough to claim control over their own operating system. We've all known how broken this system is for years, but the simplicity of iPhone updates drives the point home in powerful way: updates to a smartphone should be fast, simple, and user-friendly. Now what are you going to do about that Microsoft?

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, and his sometimes obedient dog. He's envious of the speed and simplicity with which iPhones get software updates.

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Old 08-05-2008, 10:22 PM
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Not only has this been an issue for me for a long time (as I've used Pocket PC's since the day they launched), its a very timely issue as just yesterday I checked HTC's website for the the WM 6.1 update for my AT&T Tilt, and just earlier this morning I googled for any info on the WM 6.1 update for the AT&T Motorola Q9h. Both were promissed MONTHS ago, but the best I can find is rummor and chatter.

Frustrating for sure.

Last edited by brianchris; 08-05-2008 at 10:25 PM..
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Old 08-05-2008, 10:47 PM
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Default Anyything but a hit to battery life

I've been in love with my WM devices for years but my no. 1 complaint has always been battery life.
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Old 08-05-2008, 11:14 PM
Join Date: Apr 2008
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Thanks for yet another excellent piece, Jason. It is definitely a frustrating situation.

On the other hand, you didn't say much about the mobile operators, and I think they absolutely must share a good chunk of the blame. I was reading a related article at JK On the Run earlier today, and in it James Kendrick actually makes the case that, instead of consumers being angry at the MS and the OS, most are typically only dimly aware of the specific OS their device is running, and are much more acutely attuned - as they should be - to the name of their carrier, which in the US is prominently stamped on the hardware and woven throughout the customized OS, as well. And, as JK noted, if a customer has a Sprint or Verizon or T-Mo branded phone, it's only natural that he would expect to be updated by Sprint, Verizon, or T-Mo.

Ultimately, however, I think you're mostly right that MS may not have claimed enough power over the performance of their OS, and that too much power may well be in the hands of the networks...
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Old 08-05-2008, 11:50 PM
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Preach it! I would also accept a little more battery drain to have access to actual updates. I was pretty ticked when HP announced no upgrade for 2210/15 owners - a device not even a year old and this wasn't even going up to WM5. I'd love to see an easy upgrade to the underlying OS without necessarily losing all of my installed programs and data. That's just a killer, though the newer backup programs help with device upgrades to some extent.

Apple is definitely causing an uproar in the market, though I can do without the way they lock people in to the way they want to do things. Some things like an easy device upgrade without losing critical data/apps are cool. The fact that you are forced to use only apps they approve is not so cool. Lack of stylus/physical keyboard for those of us who use those heavily is also not cool. Still, they are causing quite a few people to sit up and take notice that WM is just not right in a lot of areas.
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Old 08-06-2008, 01:13 AM
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Oh My God! As Jason mentioned, for years now we've heard that with each OS bump that updates are going to be more end user friendly, and after each new OS release we here excuses as to why it can't happen. I think it's time were stopped hearing the word"can't" and started hearing what's actually being done to make this happen.

Windows Mobile has now reached a point were they need to address a couple of end user issues such as updates and user interface, or start loosing market share to the rising number of competitors who are banging very loudly at the door........which is it going to be Mirosoft?......Maybe I should just start going to iTunes for my regular and very timely updates.

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Old 08-06-2008, 01:14 AM
Join Date: May 2008
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IIRC @ WPC Andy Lees clearly said that in the future version of WM (he didn't obviously name it WM7) updates will be directly provided to the user by MS and not the network providers anymore (just like the iPhone) and said that more info about the next WM will be released at PDC in October.
Can't find the keynote video on Microsoft's site anymore (and strangely the interesting parts have been cut out of the transcript, mainly the Q&A IIRC.. )
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Old 08-06-2008, 05:07 AM
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Now, now, to be perfectly fair, there are a few apps I have installed on my iPod Touch that wouldn't upgrade as elegantly as advertised. I ended up having to remove them from the iPod and iTunes, and re-download them in order to upgrade the programs. However, that was on the original 2.0 rom. I haven't been prompted yet to do any updates with 2.0.1.
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Old 08-06-2008, 06:59 AM
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As always, you hit the nail on the head.

As a long time Window Mobile user and general Microsoft user, I never understood why Microsoft can issue update after update to my PC through all the various manufacturers of desktops but seem to be so willingly bent over a barrell when it comes to Windows Mobile.

As you said, they may have needed to come with hat in hand to get in the mobile phone market years ago, but that time is long since passed and Microsoft, as a company, needs to wake up and start renegotiating those terms with handset makers and carriers.

I've said it before here and other places, Microsoft needs to stop letting OEMs and carriers muck around with the Windows Mobile OS - period. End of discussion.

Microsoft is finally starting to admit they are getting beat down by Apple and RIM with very little hope of catching Nokia unless they "renegotiate their contract" with all the parties involved and do it quickly. Or, do what needs to be done and come out with their own phone.

I don't see a problem if Microsoft sells their own phone through their Danger acquisition. Phone sales are all about choices. Some people WILL ALWAYS like the HTC Touch Diamond over a Windows Mobile Sidekick. How will that negatively affect the current OEMs? All of which will continue to do what they do anyway.

Personally, I'd like a GSM phone from Microsoft free of all the crapware AT&T puts on it that I would end up using on the AT&T network anyway since that's who my provider is anyway. Why should AT&T care who or where you got the phone since they make their money on the service, not the device.

Alas, as much as I agree with you and like Windows Mobile, I think this article is preaching to the choir. Microsoft is doing nothing but paying lip service with that frightened deer in the headlights look.

And, even sadder to say as a Windows Mobile fan, I've seriously got my eye on the upcoming BlackBerry Bold and leaving WinMo altogether.
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Old 08-06-2008, 08:32 AM
Lee Yuan Sheng
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Really? Seriously? You guys want less carrier control?

Then stop whining every time when you see a phone's unlocked price is at US$400-500.

If you cannot accept the carrier rebates you'll never escape their control.

Edit: Fixed horrendous typo.
Baka. Soku. Zan. - The justice behind the dysORDer.

Last edited by Lee Yuan Sheng; 08-07-2008 at 02:20 AM..
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