How Microsoft Gets Around Carrier Dependency in Windows 10 for Phones

One of the challenges that has plagued Microsoft with Windows Phone since its inception, and something they must resolve with Windows 10 for Phones has been carriers.  If you look at the history of Windows Phone 7, 8 and 8.1, the carriers have always held the strings when it comes to updates on devices.  In some cases, particularly in Europe, this has been fine as the carriers have gotten updates out in a timely manner.  Here in the US however it has been nothing short of a debacle.  Verizon Lumia Icon users just now got Lumia Cyan (rolled up with Lumia Denim) after it was available for a year.  AT&T has yet to roll out Lumia Denim to the Lumia 1520, arguably the flagship phone of the market today.  T-Mobile has been hit-or-miss which is the same for Sprint.

Microsoft in leading up to Windows 10 for Phones has indicated that they are working on ways to get around this problem and go with something akin to how Apple approaches update on iOS.  What they have not been clear on is how they plan on doing that feat.  Having done a lot of reading and asking even more questions, I think I know how they are going to do this with the next generation of Windows Phone.  The secret ingredient to me seems to be the “appification” of what use to be core components of the mobile OS.  Couple this the foundations laid with the Windows Insider program as the way to push out updates universally and you have the makings of what Microsoft wants to do:  Control the release of updates to everyone on Windows 10 for Phones in a timely manner.

First there is the move from having embedded elements of the OS to applications that are downloaded to the phone.  This may sound simplistic but you have to keep in mind where we are with Windows Phone 8.1 today then it will make a bit more sense.  Today, if Microsoft wants to update a key component app of Windows Phone 8.1, they have to push that update out.  That means they have to go through the carriers and persuade and hope the update gets released to users.  An example of this is Internet Explorer.  Today, IE is a baked in part of the Windows Phone OS and this presents two fundamental issues for Microsoft.  First, building an update for IE is difficult – more difficult than it should be – because of the interdependency between the application and the OS.  Second, as I outlined above, if an update is released it is generally released to the carriers to push out the update and could take months if ever.

With Windows 10 for Phones, Internet Explorer becomes an app in its own right.  Because the underlying code of Windows 10 is the same regardless of device, this make sense to do and it gives Microsoft the freedom to update just the app, not wrap it up in a platform update. It also gives them the ability to push down these critical app updates through the Windows Store and not the carrier, essentially taking them out of the mix.  Pushed further, Microsoft could (and has to an extent) do this “appification” of a multitude of the components that are in Windows 10 for Phones such as Glance, Extras+Info, etc.  Take it a step further and update the radio stack and Bluetooth stack by making them “apps” that can be updated directly from Microsoft without carrier intervention.  This is essentially how Apple does it today in iOS and make no mistake, it works.

Apple has enjoyed one advantage that neither Microsoft with Windows Phone or Google with Android has which is the ability to push down OS update to customers on their own.  While undoubtedly carriers see these new OS’ long before the consumer sees them, they essentially have no control of when these updates are pushed out – major or minor.  That’s because Apple has developed iOS in such a way that it looks to Apple’s servers for updated OS information as well as critical app updates to core components.  Microsoft has the ability to host these updates themselves and have proven as much through the Windows Insider program.  My Lumia 635 is running Windows 10 for Phones and has (with the exception of the day I downgraded to write my How To on how to go back to Windows Phone 8.1) since the day it was released.  My 635 is a Go Phone from AT&T and while it is not under a contract, it is locked to the carrier.

To this point AT&T has not released Lumia Denim on any of their devices.  Yet when I went the process of upgrading to Windows 10 for Phones on my Lumia 635, I was pushed down Lumia Denim before the Windows 10 for Phones Preview was installed.  Now Denim isn’t required for the Preview but Microsoft nevertheless pushed it down to my device probably in the effort to assure everyone was running a similar code based for troubleshooting.  How then could Microsoft do this with everyone who is not in the Windows Insider program in a Windows 10 for Phones world?

One way and the way I think is the most logical is to simply go through what we also know as Phone Update.  Recode Phone update to look to Microsoft instead of the carrier for updates.  This would put Microsoft in charge of the updates going forward and like for Apple, the carriers would simply be the voice and data path for the end customer. This is the way it should be I might add.  Why a carrier needs 6 months to “approve” an update to “assure it is compatible with our network” is beyond ludicrous.  This is all about control.  The carriers have it right now and Microsoft can more easily than ever before take it away from them.

The trickiest part of what I’m suggesting is the initial push of Windows 10 for Phones to existing devices for existing customers on carrier networks.  The carriers are likely not to go willingly down the path of letting Microsoft gain this control but they may not have to be asked.  Microsoft could simply release an app, Windows 10 for Phones Update, and put it in the Windows Store.  That app is essentially a rebranded Windows Insider app but for everyone with a registered Microsoft account (again, the same as Windows Insider today).  Then they give consumers a choice:  If you want Windows 10 for Phones today, download this app and we will install it for you for free and we will continue to keep you up-to-date with the latest and greatest updates as they are released.  If consumers don’t want to do this and want to wait until the carrier sends the update some months later, they have that choice. If this were done I think Microsoft overnight would have the vast majority of Windows Phone users downloading the update app and letting Microsoft control the update pace.

For new Windows 10 for Phones devices, this is a much less complicated issue.  Let’s say at Mobile World Congress in a couple of weeks that Microsoft does release the Lumia 1330.  They could simply wait until they have Windows 10 for Phones ready to go – potentially as early as May – and release that device with the new OS which would automatically be pointed to Microsoft for updates.

Do I know for certain that this is how Microsoft is going to do this conversion?  No.  I’m not a Microsoft employee nor do I have any special insights.  But I draw my conclusions based on what I’ve seen in the Preview, what others have seen, read and written and pulling together various posts and tweets from those with Microsoft.  I don’t think I’m seeing a donkey in the clouds.  I think I’m seeing a quiet but steady march to taking over updates in a smooth and elegant way both for Microsoft and their customers.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and tell how you think Microsoft is going to handle this change in Windows 10 for Phones.

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