Windows Phone 7 updates: can carriers block them?

An upgrade process that truly takes the carriers and OEMs out of the equation is something that is good for every user. It might not be so good for the carriers and OEMs, but for people who actually own and use the phones—and Microsoft—it is far and away the best situation. It’s the situation we were promised, and to really compete head on with the iPhone, I think it’s the situation that Microsoft needs: it gives Apple an enormous ability to add value to its phones, and I don’t think Microsoft can afford to give Apple that kind of a unique capability.

It also leads me to think that the only reason Microsoft won’t say that Belfiore “misspoke” is because he didn’t. I fear that the unpalatable truth is that Microsoft has let the carriers get involved in the delivery of updates, and is now too ashamed to admit it.

The new Microsoft Windows Phone 7 had promised over-the-air (OTA) updates for its devices after release – and now, it appears that carriers are demanding (and receiving) the right to approve of all updates before they are delivered. The result is a crippled phone, limited by the innovations that carriers approve of, and therefore unsuitable as a tool to disrupt the wireless industry. Same situation, different day, apparently.

What disappoints me most is that it seems as if Microsoft created a better operating system for general use on multiple devices. I’m not familiar with the internal engineering, but the Ars Technica piece quotes a Microsoft VP as saying that the OTA updates would not have any impact on OEM code or network code – leading me to believe that the same update could be applied to devices from a broad variety of manufacturers, and that the O/S is walled off enough from the rest of the phone that it couldn’t have any negative impact on the network (which I believe is not the case with Android per se). If this is true, then the carriers and the device manufacturers have *no right* to control what Microsoft does with updates – they have no legitimate interest which is in any way harmed or threatened by Microsoft-driven updates. Their incentive is purely control. They will do whatever they can to maintain absolute control over their own users, to keep them from using the applications and accessing the content of their choice, to force them to upgrade their devices faster than necessary to generate additional revenue, and to prevent any long-term disruption to their privileged market positions.

Someday, Microsoft or Apple or Google will take a stand against carrier interference, and will develop and deploy innovations at the Silicon Valley pace, not the legacy monopolist pace. I hope that day comes soon.

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