(Note: I reveal no Microsoft secrets here. I don’t have any on this topic to reveal, and I wouldn’t if I did!)
I’ve always been amazed when reading blogs or articles written by Microsoft watchers how little many of them seem to really understand the company. I’m seeing a lot of that in regard to potential updates to Windows Phone 7 (WP7). Even when they might have a solid lead on something, they seem to misinterpret the clues. Is it an attempt to gain attention by sensationalizing the facts, hoping they’ll be remembered if they hit a home run and everyone will forget the strike outs? Or do they just not think about the realities of the situation? To help the curious really think through what might happen with Windows Phone over the next year I offer some clues as to how to process the leaks and speculation.
The rumor mill is full of speculation about their being two Windows Phone announcements early in 2011, one at CES and one at MWC. They are probably right. The speculation on these announcements run from announcement of availability of a minor update such as copy-paste to a major update of WP7. Moreover, they confuse the idea of an announcement with the idea of availability. So some reports have us all getting one update delivered to our phones in January and another in February.
Let’s start with the idea of end-users actually seeing two WP7 updates one month apart. VERY unlikely. Anyone who has done large-scale software development knows that design and coding are the small parts compared to “the end-game”. The end-game are things like all the internal testing of late and final builds, giving builds to developers, testing by the device manufacturers, testing by carriers, testing the thousands of apps already in the marketplace to see if they work on the new OS version, etc. This process takes months and it is difficult to pursue on two releases in parallel. Even if Microsoft were to devote enough resources to run two parallel end-games, most of its partners could or would not. The reality of the end-game is that Windows Phone, or any other non-cloud product, is not likely to be updated more than once every 3-6 months.
What about Minor vs Major updates? Some rumors had a Major update coming in February. Given that a Major update is going to have a lot of changes for developers Microsoft will want to give developers several months to prepare. You see this with IOS all the time, and with decades of history around Microsoft products. So how could we have a major release in February without it already being in the hands of developers? You can’t. So let’s think about two things. One is what we have pretty reliable data on, and how to think about Windows Phone releases overall.
There are four items we have really good statements on from Microsoft or its partners suggesting near-term (1H2011) availability. All four have minimal on-device developer impact, and thus it is reasonable to assume they could appear in (what to the outside world at least appears to be) a minor update. Those four items, in order of the likeliness we’ll see them in early 2011, are:
- Copy/Paste – The only thing Microsoft has explicitly talked about for early 2011
- CDMA Support – Leaks from Verizon and Sprint point to early 2011
- In-Browser Flash support – Adobe execs have been talking about this since WP7 was originally revealed; SteveB hinted at it as well.
- In-Browser Silverlight support – I doubt Microsoft would release Flash support without also releasing the Silverlight support.
I don’t think there is anything else out there with enough backing to suggest they could appear in the first minor update to WP7. And despite it being a minor update, those four items would represent a huge customer value proposition improvement. There could be some surprises in both directions, other minor functionality that we don’t know about. And Flash/Silverlight in-browser is actually pretty speculative. But those 4 items do make a tasty update, don’t they?
So what about all this talk of a major update? Well, stop thinking you’ll have something in your hands in early 2011 and start thinking about the rhythm that Microsoft might be trying to establish. There are two really good times to hit the market (at least in the U.S.) with consumer products, the Christmas (etc.) holiday season and Back-to-School. For 2010 Microsoft targeted the Christmas holiday shopping season to introduce WP7. To achieve that it made an initial announcement at MWC in February, brought developers on board at MIX10 in March, and released WP7 to manufacturing (RTM) on September 1st. I would expect a very similar rhythm for a major release in 2011.
It would be hard for Microsoft to break out of a rhythm of delivering major releases in late summer because of the need to refresh the product for the Christmas holiday season (both for their own sales purposes and to align with the carriers’ need to offer customers with expiring contracts an enticement to extend another 2 years). And they need to give developers, device manufacturers, and carriers a few months to work with a new major release before it actually hits the market. I think this suggests an overall release rhythm that Microsoft will maintain for years to come. We’ll see a minor update in late winter and a major update in late summer. The minor updates will come with little advanced warning as to what is in them because of minimal to modest developer impact. The major updates will get an initial reveal around the same time as the minor update ships, with builds in the hands of developers in early spring followed by a late summer RTM. Consumer availability will be late summer/early fall, allowing for a new wave of devices for the holiday season.
So what should we expect in 2011? I’ve already discussed the minor release, but what about the major release announcement? Of course it will contain any of the four items I mentioned above that don’t make the minor release. Beyond that it is very hard to say. The one thing Microsoft has telegraphed is that it could include support for an additional chassis (something I wouldn’t expect in the minor update because of extensive developer impact). And I’d expect some tweaks to Chassis 1 to track hardware advances. Beyond that I’m sure it will include items to address competitive weaknesses, and just to flesh out the platform. For example there are capabilities already in the platform that Microsoft ran out of time providing APIs for and I imagine the major update will include a lot of new APIs for developers to access existing WP7 functionality.
I will mention one caveat to my position about not having multiple minor updates in early 2011. CDMA support is so isolated from everything else that Microsoft could actually do a second update with just that in it without the full impact of another end-game. But I really think it unlikely unless they absolutely can’t get the CDMA work done for the minor update but feel they also can’t possibly wait for the fall of 2011 to bring Verizon and Sprint on board.
I’m looking forward to the announcements in January and February as much as anyone. But I sure don’t expect to be running production bits for a new major release on my Samsung Focus for another 9 months or so.