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March 10, 2011

Phone updates: process and timing

Who doesn’t love presents? Luckily, my new job at Microsoft is to deliver them to you. My name’s Eric, and I run the team responsible for sending software updates with new features and improvements to your phone. From time to time, I’ll be posting here to answer your questions or concerns—and tell you what useful stuff an update is bringing.

Since my team started sending out the first phone update a few weeks ago, there’s understandably been a lot of interest in how we deliver them. I also know there are concerns around Windows Phone updates, and today I want to try to address them. I’ll provide a brief behind-the-scenes look at the process and bring you the latest news on the copy-and-paste update, which I know many of you are waiting for.

How software gets from us to you

Many customers have already received our February update. Others, I know, are still waiting for the message saying it’s available. This has made some of you understandably anxious, wondering: Will I ever get it? Why does it take so long?

The best way for me to answer is to briefly summarize the journey update software takes from our computers here in Redmond to Windows Phones like yours around the world. With 9 handsets on 60 mobile operators in 30 countries around the world, things can get a little complicated!

Here’s what happens:

First, the engineering team here makes and thoroughly tests changes to our Windows Phone operating system software, adding new and improved features or making fixes.

But that’s typically just part of what we send you. The companies that make your Windows Phone handset—or even the chips inside them—also frequently provide us updated firmware that they’ve written, tested, and want us to include.

This combination makes up our update, which we dispatch to the cellular carriers around the world that sell Windows Phones. The carriers then conduct their own tests to help ensure that the new software works correctly both on their networks and the Windows Phone models they sell.

We work closely with our carrier partners, and encourage them to test our software as swiftly as possible. But it’s still their network, and the reality is that some carriers require more time than others. By the way, this carrier testing is a common industry practice that all of our competitors must also undergo. No exceptions.

After a carrier has had an opportunity to test, we schedule an update delivery to its customers through Microsoft Update, the same system that Microsoft uses to update your desktop PC. You see a message on your phone saying an update is available, plug your phone into your computer and—voila—a few clicks later you have the latest and greatest version of Windows Phone.

One important point worth highlighting: Our update technology allows us to precisely target which phones receive an update. Since some updates are hardware-specific, we don’t send every update to every device. We also don’t send new software updates to everyone at once. This staggered approach is deliberate, and helps us pinpoint and fix any problems quickly.

You’re probably asking yourself: If you do all that testing, how can there still occasionally be problems?

Great question. Microsoft has been making and delivering software updates long enough to know that the laboratory can simulate—but never quite equal—the experience of delivering software to thousands of real phones “in the wild,” each loaded with its own unique set of apps, pictures, songs, and other stuff.

Success of our February update

This brings me back to our February update, which I briefly want to touch on.

As you might recall, this minor update is an important but invisible under-the-hood tweak designed to improve the phone update process itself. It results in no visible changes to your phone.

Of the customers who’ve so far tried to install it, the overwhelming majority have been successful. If you’ve been following along, you know that we did encounter a few issues, which we quickly identified and fixed or provided workarounds for.

Let me be crystal clear: We’re not satisfied when problems prevent you from enjoying the latest Windows Phone updates. When we find an issue, we study and fix it. To that end, we’re carefully studying the current update process and will apply the lessons learned from it to all future ones. This is how we get better.

There’s one more thing I want to clear up. I’ve seen a lot of speculation on blogs and forums lately about whether carriers can “block” an update. We work closely with carriers to test and schedule updates. They may ask us for a specific date to start an update. They may ask for updates to be bundled together.  But you should ultimately receive all the updates we send out.

Status of the “copy and paste” update

We have the next update waiting in the wings. It delivers copy and paste, better Marketplace search, and other key improvements. 

But I believe it’s important that we learn all we can from the February update. So I’ve decided to take some extra time to ensure the update process meets our standards, your standards, and the standards of our partners. As a result, our plan is to start delivering the copy-and-paste update in the latter half of March.

This short pause should in no way impact the timing of future updates, including the one announced recently at Mobile World Congress featuring multitasking, a Twitter feature, and a new HTML 5-friendly version of Internet Explorer Mobile.

A final word

These are exciting times. With more than 9000 apps in Marketplace, new carriers and phones on the way, and a new strategic alliance with Nokia, we’re psyched about what we’re building and what’s ahead. Delivering regular updates to your phone is a key part of our innovation plans.

On behalf of the entire engineering team, I want to personally thank you for buying a Windows Phone, for all your enthusiasm around it, and for your suggestions about how to make it better.

We’re listening carefully, working hard to improve our software, and think you’ll love the surprises we have in store.

Eric Hautala

General Manager, Customer Experience Engineering