Well, we can safely add "NoDo," the first software update for Windows Phone 7, to the annals of Microsoft disasters, alongside such duds as Windows Vista, Zune, Microsoft Bob, and Clippy, the annoying Office feature from years gone by. Rarely has Microsoft taken so long to deliver so little, and almost never has it lashed out so childishly at those supporters who have called them on it and, in one amazing case, actually tried to help customers.
NoDo would be a nifty little update if it was simply one of several updates that Microsoft had shipped by now. That it could prove to be the only software that Microsoft ships in Windows Phone's first year is, perhaps, the most astonishing thing I can say about this platform. Yes, Microsoft is, generally speaking, a slow moving company. But the Windows Phone team makes the rest of the software giant look positively light-footed by comparison.
To understand why that's so, let's step back for a moment and trace the ugly history of this otherwise unimportant little update. After that, I'll explain exactly what's in NoDo and then explain what to expect from the only other Windows Phone update that Microsoft will ship in 2011, assuming it makes that schedule. If you were hoping to see Microsoft quickly step in and close the gap with the iPhone and Android market leaders this year, hope no more. It ain't happening.
The (slow) path to NoDo
Last year, Microsoft pledged to update users' Windows Phones directly, bypassing its carrier partners. What the company didn't tell us, however, at least not until the product launched in October, is that this bypassing is, in reality, artificial. Yes, Microsoft does indeed directly deliver Windows Phone software updates to users. But for that majority of users who purchase these handsets from wireless carriers, Microsoft won't deliver any update until their wireless carriers sign off on it. Thus, carriers can prevent these updates from going out to Windows Phone users. And they have done just this with NoDo.
I call this process carrier blocking because that's what it is, and because that's how Microsoft officials described it to the press in October 2010. Microsoft, arguing along semantic lines, now says this is incorrect. In their history rewriting, partner-friendly worldview, wireless carriers "have a very real and reasonable interest" in testing updates because these companies "take the support calls and have to worry about whether their network[s] will stay up and perform well for everyone."
Fair enough. But Microsoft will not deliver updates to customers whose wireless carriers have yet to "finish testing." And the reality is that wireless carriers have a vested interest in not even testing the updates, let alone delivering them to customers. And that's because carriers don't want you to keep getting free new functionality on an old phone. They want you to buy a new phone, pay an early termination fee where possible, and re-up for two more years. That's how these companies make money. And some carriers, most notably AT&T, have been pretty baldfaced in preventing their users from getting NoDo by keeping it in a seemingly indefinite testing phase.
You see, Microsoft completed NoDo in December, according to my sources. And yes, it originally expected to deliver this update to Windows Phone users by the end of 2010.
As I first discussed in my lengthy Windows Phone review (it's in Part 2), I warned Microsoft that this would happen, and did in fact argue strenuously that giving the carriers any blocking ability whatsoever negated the artificial benefit of Microsoft's supposed direct connection to its customers. The representatives of the company I spoke with that day in October were curiously clueless about this reality, and claimed that its partners would never do such a thing. Even an AT&T representative who was on hand for the event claimed this. I felt this guy was lying through his teeth.
History has proven me right in this case at least. And unfortunately, it's turned the Windows Phone team against me, because as I've been proven right, again and again, it's inability to deliver even the simplest of updates has become an embarrassment during a time in which the company should be regularly updating Windows Phone. Furthermore, the software giant is in an increasingly untenable situation where it has signed on a major new partner in Nokia, and it doesn't want to harm its already fragile relationships with other hardware makers.
And make no mistake, this is a very real issue. That's because wireless carriers aren't the only kink in this Windows Phone axis of ineptitude. The hardware makers, those companies that make Windows Phone handsets like Dell, HTC, LG, and Samsung, have also screwed over Microsoft big time.
Again, Microsoft won't be completely honest about this because it's trying to smooth relationships with companies that, frankly, do a lot more business on the Android side of the fence and were only half-heartedly interested in Windows Phone to begin with. So when Microsoft finally began the NoDo rollout in February, it was surprised to discover that a certain percentage of phones weren't updating correctly.
Microsoft corporate VP Joe Belfiore said that the company "found issues with the way the update was getting deployed on phones because of things that we hadn't anticipated that happened as real phones were manufactured ... some of them had characteristics that we hadn't seen before." And that's because the hardware makers had silently changed the internal configurations of some of their phones, without telling Microsoft.
This created an awkward situation for the company, and the result was a new, pre-NoDo update, or what I call the "pre-update" (since renamed to the February 2011 Update for Windows Phone, which overstates its importance and mission), as well as an update to the Zune PC software, which is used to deliver updates to Windows Phone. These updates "fixed" the Windows Phone software updating mechanism on both the phones and the PC, respectively, so that they could accommodate these previously secret phone configurations. But they also caused further delays in getting NoDo out to customers. And Microsoft's initial pre-update release had its own bugs, so the company actually pulled it for a week while it fixed that problem. These guys couldn't seem to do anything right.
By the time March 2011 hit, NoDo had been in wireless carriers' hands for over three months and many of these partners had yet to sign off on the release. But with the unexpected need for a pre-update and so many customer problems, the slow-moving carriers likely felt vindicated: Why shouldn't we spend a lot of time testing this thing, since Microsoft has already had to issue two patches to fix it, one of which needed its own separate fix? What if there were more problems?
Microsoft responded by fixing the pre-update and then very slowly rolling out NoDo, but only to those customers with unlocked phones (and thus no direct wireless carrier relationship) or on carriers that had already signed off on the update. For the majority of customers who didn't fall under these categories, the waiting game continued. In fact, it ran from February, into March, and then into April and continues to this day for many.
"We felt it would be better to be a little bit patient, make sure that when we get updates out that they would happen reliably, and unfortunately, that caused a delay in getting things out," Belfiore explained.
During this time, the Windows Phone team made a series of stupefying blog posts that were aimed at calming frayed customer nerves but had the exact opposite effect. Microsoft's Eric Hautala explained on March 10 that while "some carriers require more time than others," any discussion about carriers being able to "block" updates was "speculation." (I stated as early as October 2010 that this was a fact, and have of course been since vindicated by Microsoft's public statements at MIX'11.)
On March 23, Hautala announced a Microsoft support page called Where's my phone update? that graphically showed which wireless carriers were taking their sweet time to
stop blocking, excuse me, finish testing the pre-update and NoDo. The tables provided by Microsoft were widely lambasted for their lack of useful information. (And I'd point out that today, April 15, 2011, or the very middle of the month, marks just the latest time period in which AT&T is, again, late in delivering any update to its Windows Phone customers: The table still says that AT&T's "estimated testing completion date is early April 2011." It's official: We're past that.)
In late March, I published an article, Oh NoDo You Don't: Getting The Windows Phone Update Now, which explained how to bypass the carriers and get NoDo installed on your phone. This method requires a bit of effort, but was worth it, I felt, given the lack of progress. But the biggest boon to Windows Phone users waiting on NoDo came in early April when a homebrew developer named Chris Walsh reverse engineered Microsoft's publicly-available Windows Phone support tool and provided customers with a very simple way to install NoDo (and, first, the pre-update). This tool, called ChevronWP7.Updater, worked wonderfully. I used it to update one of my Windows Phone devices as did thousands of others.
Behind the scenes, Microsoft was planning to use a similar tool to allow MIX'11 attendees to update their own phones to NoDo as kind of a thank you. But when they investigated Walsh's tool, they found a bug that was also present in their own internal tool and shelved plans to provide the MIX freebie. But instead of thanking Walsh, Microsoft took the unusual step of blasting him and the tool publicly and threatening him privately. The company claimed that the tool "might" make it impossible to later upgrade the phone, though it told Walsh privately that it "would" do this. (Why would it tell its customers one thing and Walsh another?)
Prompted by Microsoft, Walsh apologized, and he tells me he plans to provide a method for users to re-flash their phone ROMs or otherwise workaround whatever issue does or does not exist in these "Walshed" phones. (And there may be no issue at all; I've heard from several readers who have in fact received carrier- and hardware-specific Windows Phone updates after using the updater, something Microsoft says is impossible.)
And that brings us to this week. On the eve of MIX, Eric Hautala provided his latest pointless update on NoDo ("There were no changes to Where’s my phone update? this week") and then Joe B. took to the MIX stage, apologized for the delays, and completely corroborated what I've been saying all along.
What's new in NoDo
Microsoft's inability to deliver NoDo to customers in a timely and bug-free manner will hopefully soon be a thing of the past, but the unfortunate reality is that this fiasco will always be the biggest part of the NoDo story. And that's because NoDo doesn't bring a lot of new functionality to the party. Again, this wouldn't be an issue if NoDo were one of several monthly updates Microsoft had delivered by now, or perhaps even quarterly updates. But NoDo will almost certainly be just one of two Windows Phone updates that Microsoft delivers this entire year (2011). And it could very well be the only software update that the software giant delivers for Windows Phone in its first year on the market (October 2010 through September 2011).
Here's what's new in NoDo.
Copy and paste
Microsoft considers copy and paste to be such a big deal that it has started referring to NoDo not as the "March 2011 Update," which is its official name, but as the "copy and paste update." It does this because it thinks that customers believe copy and paste is very important. I think the company is mistaken.
Yes, the lack of copy and paste in the initial shipping version of Windows Phone was an easy target for the Captain Obvious bloggers and reviewers who were predisposed to discredit Microsoft's new mobile platform. But copy and paste, while not completely useless on a phone, has proven to be much less desirable than expected, certainly less desirable than I thought it was back in 2007, when I complained that Apple's iPhone lacked this feature at that time.
The truth is, copy and paste is only occasionally useful, and I've only needed it very infrequently. Also true, Windows Phone's implementation of copy and paste, in NoDo, is half-hearted at best. That is, it's not universal: You can only copy and paste text, and then only in certain situations.
It's hard to know exactly what these situations are, which is maddening. According to Microsoft, copy and paste works in "the browser, in Office documents, and in the body of email you've received." It also works in any text box in which you can type. This includes Calendar appointments, a Facebook comments field, and so on.
But if you open a typical app, you can't just arbitrarily copy (or paste) text. You can't type a phone number in manually and copy that.
So it works in some places but not others. When it does work, it works pretty well. You can tap a word to select it, and then drag the beginning and ending arrows on the selection to include (or omit) other words and characters. When you're happy with the selection, tap the little floating Copy icon that appears.
You can also sometimes copy with a menu, as in the Messaging app. Tap and hold on the message you'd like to copy and then select Copy from the menu that appears.
Pasting works similarly. In the target app, tap the place you'd like to paste the text (say, the Subject line of the email, or perhaps a Word document). Then, tap the small Paste icon, which appears in the left side of the text suggestion bar, at the top of the virtual keyboard.
There's even a hidden feature: You can text the same text more than once. Which makes sense, though once you've pasted text, that Paste icon no longer appears in the text suggestion bar. To make it reappear so you can repaste the text, tap on the screen where you'd like to paste and then swipe to the right on the text suggestion bar. You'll see the Paste icon reappear.
Copy and paste is limited in other ways. It copies and pastes plain text only, so any formatting (italics, bold, whatever) is lost. (And of course it can't work with other data types like pictures.) And it works only with languages that use a Latin alphabet. All in all, it's better than nothing, but is pretty much a bare bones implementation.
While Windows Phone includes an innovative user interface, many users have complained about the performance of apps, especially around app startup and app resume. This is particularly problematic with certain apps, including Facebook and Netflix, and many games, like the Harvest. In NoDo, Microsoft has improved the performance of the phone in these situations, and while it's a minor thing in some ways--what's a few seconds between friends, right?--the overall impression is very positive. You definitely notice the difference.
One of the more irritating problems in Windows Phone is the inability to filter search results in Windows Phone Marketplace. So if you search for something like "Google," the results lists comingles apps, (song) artists, (music) albums, and songs and it does so in a seemingly illogical (unordered) way. In NoDo, Marketplace search still works like that by default. But if you navigate into a particular area of the store (Apps, Games, or Music) and then tap the Search button, the results list will only include results of that type. So when you're in Music, search results show just music. This is as welcome as it is obvious.
Now, music searches only return music results.
These three changes listed above are the only notable fixes in NoDo. However, Microsoft has provided a number of other, smaller changes in NoDo too. The Marketplace received some stability improvements, fixing the infamous "crash to home screen" problem you no doubt experienced. The Mail app now correctly works with iPhone-based photo emails. Facebook account sync has allegedly been improved, though it's still horrible in my experience. The experience of using a Bluetooth headset to make calls when you're playing music or videos has improved, whatever that means. And depending on your phone model, you may receive some device- or carrier-specific updates as well. Microsoft has a full list of the changes in NoDo on its Windows Phone update history page. Look under the section titled, "March 2011."
The future of Windows Phone software updates
As I write this in mid-April 2011, Microsoft is still struggling to deliver its first Windows Phone update, NoDo, to customers. Combine that with the paucity of fixes in NoDo, and it's probably not surprising that my confidence in future updates is at an all-time low. I went into this week's MIX'11 show hoping to hear something concrete about Microsoft's plans for updating Windows Phone in the future. And what I heard was that Mango, the Windows Phone 7.5 update due by the end of 2011, is it.
Now, Microsoft could surprise us. (And yes, there is a tiny SSL-related update, like a hot-fix, coming soon as well.) But unless something major changes this year, Microsoft basically is planning two real software updates for Windows Phone in 2011: NoDo and Mango.
NoDo, as described above, isn't much. Mango, however, looks much more impressive. Whether it fixes all that ails Windows Phone remains to be seen, as the company's MIX revelations were largely developer oriented. But there are consumer and business features to come, and I think most Windows Phone users will be quite pleased with Mango, assuming Microsoft does indeed meet the schedule, which places the Mango release at GA+1 (General Availability + 1), or one year after Windows Phone's launch, or October 2011. I have my doubts.
But there's a lot there at least. And even at this early stage, there's a lot to say. So I'll have a Mango preview available soon, once I finishing pouring over all of the Windows Phone sessions and speeches Microsoft provided at MIX. It's a big job, but I'm happy to do it. And the reason is simple: Despite Microsoft's best efforts at killing my enthusiasm for Windows Phone this year, I'm still the platform's biggest fan. I wish they would do more, and do it more quickly. But I still prefer Windows Phone to iPhone or Android. And I can't wait to see what happens next.