I’m going to leave all (well, most) of the emotion about the lack of upgrades for older phones to Windows Phone 8 on the side and just address the practical impact. I’m not talking about the potential negative short-term impact on Windows Phone sales, but rather the practical impact on owners of Windows Phone 7.x devices.
Let’s start with enthusiasts, perhaps the audience that is most pissed off about the lack of a Windows Phone 8 upgrade for existing devices. I put myself in this category, and once I calmed down (and I’ve had almost two months to do so since it became apparent there weren’t going to be upgrades for existing devices), I realized that Microsoft was probably making the right call in assuming enthusiasts would end up ok with their decision. Why? You’re telling me that you wouldn’t flush your new Lumia 900 down the toilet right now to have a dual-core, 1024×768 display, NFC support, removable MicroSD card, with a Nokia PureView camera no less, phone? The way I’ve been handling phones the last several years is to buy one on contact every two years, then pay full price in the off years so I could have the latest and greatest. My assumption when I picked up the Lumia 900 was I’d wait a few months after Windows Phone 8 shipped to see what everyone was bringing to the table. Ok so I won’t keep the Lumia 900 the full 12 months that implies, and I’ll keep whatever follows it for longer than 12 months until my next contract renewal. But the generational leap from the 900 to a Windows Phone 8 device will be much larger than anything that appears in the 15-18 months that follows so that will be ok. I’ll still be on my one phone per year program. And once other enthusiasts calm down I think most will come to the same conclusion. We want all that new hardware, and just upgrading an existing phone to Windows Phone 8 wouldn’t have brought that with it. So we’ll find a family member who doesn’t care about having the latest and greatest to give the Lumia 900 to. They’ll think its a really great gift and that Windows Phone 7.8 is just an awesome, modern, OS that goes far beyond what they really needed or wanted.
Which actually brings me to the “Typical User” (unregistered, un-trademarked, ambiguous and some claim meaningless term). I’ve said this before, given the behaviors of Android phone owners it would be fair to assume that the vast majority of Windows Phone users don’t care much about upgrades. I’ve asked many an Android user what version they are running and the near universal response is “I don’t know”. I then ask if an update is available for their phone and the near universal response is “How do I update?”. They buy a phone, it does what it does, and that is the way of life. They don’t think of it as a general purpose computing platform that gets new versions the way their PC does. So how will a typical Windows Phone user react to the lack of Windows Phone 8? They probably won’t care. T-Mobile just commented that they are selling a lot of Lumia 710s to people moving from a feature phone to a smartphone. Do you really think this audience knows, cares, or wants to know about updates? No way. Maybe the press can plant seeds of doubt for potential new purchasers, but the reality is that most people buying a new Windows Phone 7.x device won’t think about the update question unless it is shoved down their throat.
And then there is the most problematic audience. The ones that don’t even have a name. They aren’t enthusiasts, but they did drink the Windows Phone Kool-Aid. They are fans. They bought for the future as much as they bought for today. And there is no future for them. They aren’t going to buy a new phone until their contract is over and they can get another subsidized phone. They are going to look on those able to run Windows Phone 8 with envy. They are going to be really pissed at Microsoft, Nokia, and AT&T (or other carrier) for selling them the Lumia 900 as the flagship Windows Phone just a few months before telling them it had no future. They are going to be vocal to all who will listen about how Microsoft et al screwed them. I don’t know how big this audience is, but if it is large then Windows Phone is in trouble because they will chase away future purchasers.
There will be three classes of apps going forward. One is the class of apps that will run fully on Windows Phone 7.8 and Windows Phone 8, and this includes the existing 100,000 apps in the Marketplace. Another are apps that will run on both but have some functionality that is only available on Windows Phone 8. The last are apps that only run on Windows Phone 8, for example because they use native C/C++ code. Or because the developer decides the Windows Phone 7.8 market is too small to bother with. I’d predicted earlier that the Windows Phone 7.x marketplace would top out soon after 100,000 apps because developers would switch attention to Windows Phone 8. While the exact number is fuzzy I think the principle still holds. Gaming developers, for example, will switch from using XNA to native which leaves out the devices running 7.8. Of course one could argue that those devices are too slow to support the emerging games and so Microsoft was doing users a favor by not bringing them to the older hardware. But I think that will be lost on people. What they will see is that the marketplace grows, but not for them. Once the number of Windows Phone 8 devices out in the world exceeds the number of Windows Phone 7 devices, which I suspect will happen rather quickly, developers will have no incentive to target the older devices. Even current applications will introduce new versions that won’t run on Windows Phone 7.8. Of course you could argue that users who don’t care about updates also don’t care much about new apps, and you’d have a point. But there is a scenario where (for example) Pandora comes to Windows Phone 8 but not Windows Phone 7.8, and for Pandora fans who own older devices it will be a great source of frustration. Again, perhaps this matters only to my third category “fans who are not quite enthusiasts”.
On the other hand, Nokia seems to be going all out to bring goodies to Windows Phone 7.x devices to keep its momentum going. So in addition to 7.8 it looks like we might get Nokia-specific functionality as well as more Nokia-exclusive apps. I don’t know if any other device manufacturer will try to prolong the life of their existing Windows Phone lines, or just concentrate on selling Android until Windows Phone 8 is introduced. All I know is that my Lumia 900 apparently is going to get a lot of goodies between now and when I replace it!
So is there a bottom line here? When you take out the marketing gaffe I wrote about this morning it looks like Microsoft is thinking very clearly about real customers. But clear thinking and good marketing are not the same thing.