Two weeks ago Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8 (related article) for a new generation of smartphones. Windows Phone 8 will have a shared core with Windows 8 to unify whole Windows ecosystem. As I understand it, developers will be able to write Metro application once and target it on all Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices including desktops, notebooks, servers, smartphones, tablets and probably also a new generation of Microsoft XBox. The targeting will most probably be only about different UI for some devices. I will not deny that this sounds promising. The Windows Phone 8 and all its features looks really great. Microsoft did a great job when creating this new version of operating system for mobile devices and as a developer I really like the new platform.
Some new Windows Phone 8 features are dependent on a new hardware available only in new devices created directly for Windows Phone 8. These devices will be available on official Windows Phone 8 launch. There is also a lot of amazing software features which are completely independent on a new hardware. Current Windows Phone 7.5 customers highly expected these features and they were so happy to hear about them. Until Microsoft did it ... The history is repeating and Microsoft again showed how they care about their current smartphone customers. There will be no official upgrade path from Windows Phone 7.5 to Windows Phone 8. The current known situation and a lot of assumptions around Windows Phone 8 and relation to Windows Phone 7.5 is explained in the rest of this article.
What is Windows Phone 7.8?
Windows Phone 7.5 devices will only get an upgrade called Windows Phone 7.8. The only officially mentioned feature for this upgrade is a new home screen. Nothing more. Are you expecting VoIP integration? Sorry Microsoft didn't mention it. Are you expecting better multitasking? Again Microsoft didn't mention it. Other not mentioned software features are for example Internet Explorer 10, new maps from Nokia or in-app purchases but there will be more of them. How are these new features related to a new hardware? I'm not a hardware specialist but I say they are not. It was also not clearly explained if current devices will be able to run applications targeted to Windows Phone 8 or using native libraries - I'm sure they will not because Windows 8 shared core will not be part of Windows Phone 7.8 upgrade. Another thing which is also not clear is the next support of Windows Phone 7.x. Will Windows Phone 7.8 be the last upgrade (and also update) for Windows Phone 7.5? The only other available feature announced on Windows Phone Summit is Audible which is already available for download to current Windows Phone 7.5 devices.
As you can see the announcement itself was again done in Microsoft way. It blurred a lot of details and didn't explain them. The article on Windows Phone blog was done in the same way. There are more than 300 comments from disappointed and annoyed Windows Phone 7.5 customers but no single explanation from Microsoft representatives. There is also no related article on Windows Phone blog trying to explain or clarify all raised questions. I see this behavior on other Microsoft blogs as well - especially .NET and Visual Studio blog recently showed the same level of ignorance. I don't understand how such announcements and articles can pass any marketing or PR verification. They simply damage customer's confidence to Microsoft.
Impact on current Windows Phone 7.5 customers
What does it mean for current Windows Phone 7.5 customers? Their devices will still work. This announcement didn't change the current quality of their devices but it stated that operating system in these devices will not improve in the future. If current customers expected new features, fixes, improvements or updates they will most probably never receive them. The announcement described Microsoft's opinion about Windows Phone 7.5 and its support. I believe it will not be far from reality to describe this announcement as announcing end of life for Windows Phone 7.x with no possibility to upgrade. It will be also interesting to see how this affects releases of new applications for Windows Phone 7.x and updates and fixes of existing applications. Especially small software houses will probably not have capacity to maintain both Silverlight (WP7.x and WP8) and Metro (W8 and WP8) versions of their applications. I believe they will choose to support only Metro version because it will be able to run on both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. It is also definitive end for Silverlight development.
Microsoft's success was always based on hardware independence and the easiness of upgrades. We could use any PC components and Windows simply worked on that PC with correct drivers. We could also upgrade ten years old PC to the latest version of Windows and it worked (sure it could be slower but it was possible). This is not true in smartphone area. You can have six months old smartphone and you will not be able to upgrade it to a newer Windows Phone version. That is exactly the case of Nokia Lumia 900 - the flag ship of Windows Phone 7.5 devices. It is two months old device and its owners now feel like Microsoft abandoned them. I hardly believe that devices like Nokia Lumia 800 or Nokia Lumia 900 and some other have worse hardware than upcoming entry level Windows Phone 8 devices. Moreover as mentioned at the beginning of Windows Phone Summit new Windows Phone 8 shares Windows kernel including driver core so supporting any other device is only about writing drivers. I believe Nokia, HTC, Samsung and other can do that.
The announcement of Windows Phone 8 also claimed that new devices will have at least 18 months support since their release date. This claim also looks like a bad joke for current Windows Phone 7.5 customers. Where is the support for their devices? As a smartphone customer I expect the support to include operating system upgrades - including upgrades to a new major versions. The upgrade doesn't have to provide all new features for old devices but providing just a new start screen is a mockery. It doesn't mean that the new start screen is not great. It means that in the context of all new features available in Windows Phone 8, the start screen is not enough.
Is this how Microsoft thanks to their current customers? Who do you think rated Windows Phones so highly on Amazon phone marketplace? The beginning of the summit started with a very nice spot about Windows Phone and its happy customers. It would be nice to have a spot about current customers after this announcement.
The parallel to Windows Mobile 6.5
This is a nice parallel to less than two years old situation with Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Phone 7 and HTC HD2. Microsoft also announced Windows Phone 7 with no possibility for upgrade from Windows Mobile 6.5. HTC H2 owners were so annoyed (including me) but Microsoft claimed that HTC HD2 is incompatible with Windows Phone 7 and the upgrade is not possible. You know what? Later on developers found a way to run Windows Phone 7 on HTC HD2 and today you can find a lot of articles about running Windows Phone 7.5 on HTC HD2. According to wikipedia Microsoft even provided Windows Phone 7.5 activation codes for HTC HD2. My confidence to Microsoft's Windows Phone division was damaged twice. First by not providing the upgrade and secondly by finding that the official statement was not a truth.
Impact on new customers
What does it mean for new Windows Phone customers? What do you expect from a new smartphone? Are you a technology geek who expects upgrades to latest versions? Are you an user who doesn't change phones too often and expects long time support? If yes learn from the past - two years ago Microsoft made a choice and didn't provide upgrade for Windows Mobile 6.5 users. Two weeks ago Microsoft did the same for Windows Phone 7.5 users. Microsoft can make the same choice for any future upgrade. Make this part of your decision when selecting a new smartphone to avoid a big disappointment. I believe many of current Windows Phone 7.5 customers will not choose Windows smartphone again. I like Windows Phone (my friends spoke highly about their Windows Phone devices) but I hate this "no upgrade" strategy. Because of that strategy, I didn't buy Windows Phone 7.x device and I'm most probably not going to buy Windows Phone 8 device either.
It doesn't mean that other mobile platforms are so much better. Google Android has very big fragmentation and system upgrade is always dependent on manufacturer or on your own skills. Apple's iOS has very good support at the moment but it can change in the future. Apple's upgrades are somehow minimalistic in contrast to upgrade showed by Microsoft and not all features are usually supported on older devices (but most of them is). Anyway both Android and iOS devices have upgrade paths.
Fragmentation on Windows Phone
I'm not a sales person and I don't understand why Microsoft want to start over without their current customers and market share? This approach doesn't make sense to me. Why not to start with the current market share on the launch date of Windows Phone 8? I understand that missing hardware features in old devices will cause fragmentation but dividing customers to two categories - one running the old version and one running the new version creates fragmentation as well. I believe the fragmentation caused by missing hardware features on single runtime core is better than the fragmentation on two different runtime cores. Providing upgrade for at least newer devices would show to both current and future customers that Microsoft cares about them.
The announcement of Windows Phone 8 raised a lot of questions and displeasure among current Windows Phone users. The situation is similar to less than two years old launch of Windows Phone 7. It is also a warning for all upcoming Windows Phone users. Dissatisfied customers should be loud, they should form a group and request clarification from Microsoft. Perhaps they will be lucky and Microsoft will give them better upgrade than currently described Windows Phone 7.8. Also don't forget to visit Windows Phone UserVoice and vote for improvements you would like to see - including the request for bringing Windows Phone 8 features to Windows Phone 7.8. I believe the correct request should be providing Windows Phone 8 LE for current devices because the shared core with Windows 8 really matters or even better simply let manufactures write drivers for current devices and offer full upgrade to Windows Phone 8.
The motivation for current Windows Phone users can be announcement of Microsoft Visual Studio Express 2012 for Windows desktop development. This version was originally not planned (or at least mentioned) but a big displeasure among developers resulted in announcing this version few weeks ago. If Microsoft don't change its decision, current users can still hope that developers will find a way to port Windows Phone 8 to current devices unofficially. Good luck!
Why I care? Knowledge of Microsoft technologies pays my bills. Even if I disagree with Microsoft strategy I still hope for their success. If Microsoft succeeds with its technologies and devices I will have a better job security. In the same time my opinion as a developer is unrelated to my behavior as a customer.