The Truth About Major WM OS Upgrades

Windows Mobile 6.0 has been announced, and now the fun discussions begin. You can read about the new OS in various places - including an article I wrote that will appear in the next issue of Smartphone and Pocket PC Magazine, but that's not what I'm blogging about today.

There are new features we all would like to see: HTML email is the one I'd like most. And if you have a current model Smartphone, you might be anxious to be able to read Word, Excel and PowerPoint file attachments on your device as this screen shot shows:

Excel file on a WM 6.0 Smartphone

But before you get too excited, you might want to read on for a bit of a reality check...

Whenever a major new version of Windows Mobile appears, the issue of upgrades for existing devices always appears on various Web sites and newsgroups. It’s worth setting proper expectations regarding such upgrades.
Microsoft provides the device manufacturers and mobile carriers with the upgrade and leaves it up to them as to whether they will provide it to their customers. Many factors enter in this decision. For example, each hardware design requires a customized "hardware abstraction layer" to be added to the software. This is up to the manufacturer, not Microsoft. It costs them money to develop this, and they must balance this with the number of customers they think will purchase the upgrade.

They also must consider that the time and effort spent on creating the upgrade might be better spent developing other new products. Another factor that weighs on this decision is the fact that older devices with slower processors and fewer memory resources may not perform well with the newer version of the operating system. Finally, manufacturers and carriers consider the cost of supporting the upgrade process. In the end, it’s often not feasible or profitable to offer major upgrades for older devices.

Still, companies do provide these upgrades to maintain good relations with their customers. This is especially true when a model with an earlier version of the OS has been released just prior to the new version. Another reason they might consider offering the upgrade is when the new version adds a feature that allows them to generate additional revenue, especially for mobile phone carriers - such as by supporting a feature that requires additional data usage.

Additionally, companies such as HP or a carrier might have a larger contract with one or more huge enterprise customers. In such cases, it might work into their overall strategy to provide an upgrade for them.

But in general, OS upgrades sold directly to consumers represent a cost that is hard to justify. We don't like that, but it's the unfortunate truth. Certainly there will be lots of rants posted on various Web sites and blogs, but if we try to see the perspective of the device makers, it's really hard to fault them if they elect not to upgrade current models. Of course, the good news is that our current devices will work as well with their current software as they did last week. And of course, if you really want the features that Windows Mobile 6.0 will offer, there will certainly be a host of shiny new devices later this year.

In the meantime, if you feel the need to rant, or you think I'm totally off-base on this one, feel free to post your comments here.

Is there any word about when WM6 will become available?

Ben: No word on when WM 6.0 devices will become available. But I would be very surprised to see anything before summer.

TOCA: Great question! The reason you don't see Windows Mobile upgrades working like the desktop versions is mostly due to two factors:

1) Device Resources: Most people don't realize it, but much of the "plug-and-play" aspect of Windows XP is not so much due to devices all using standard interfaces, but rather because the distribution has a MASSIVE number of drivers and many drivers deal with differences at run time. This works for the desktop because we have huge disk drives to store it all, and very fast processors to deal with the drivers supporting multiple configurations.

But for Windows Mobile, the system resources are too limited to allow for this kind of design. To speed things up and limit the size of the OS, the hardware configuration must be fixed in advance. A simple example is the screen size: For the desktop, it's not too much to ask the OS to size the screen on the fly, but for WM, the screen size is fixed in the hardware adoption layer (HAL) for performance reasons.

This also applies to unique issues of keyboards, cameras and especially the phone hardware.

2) Cost Control: The carriers like to control things. As I pointed out in my blog article, there's a huge cost to support upgrades. Microsoft does not provide end user support for WM, so they can't push out major upgrades to the users and expect the device makers and mobile carriers to cover the cost of support.

There is good news here though: In Windows Mobile 6.0, there is a "Windows Update" task that will be able to download intermediate updates directly. I doubt we will see it update a full rev of the software for the reasons I've been stating, but it will allow Microsoft to push out bug fixes - which is a great step forward. I'll post more details about this in a future blog entry.

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