The practical impact of not upgrading older phones to Windows Phone 8

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.

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8 Responses to The practical impact of not upgrading older phones to Windows Phone 8

  1. Bharath says:

    Very well said & I agree 100%

  2. Fallon Massey says:

    Well, if I can upgrade my phone for little or nothing, all will be forgiven.

    However, the bigger problem, IMO, is that this move all but freezes WP7 sales, and stops development of any new WP7 apps!

    In short, they killed WP7 with one big announcement, and literally forced everyone to wait on WP8!

    • halberenson says:

      Maybe. If someone walks into a T-Mobile store and says “I think it’s time I got rid off this old (feature) phone and got a smartphone” and they go to sell them a Lumia 710 the customer is not going to say “No, that thing isn’t upgradeable to Windows Phone 8″. The same thing with a customer for the Lumia 610 or ZTE Tania being sold in China. So WP7 device sales will continue. And since all WP7 apps will run on WP8 there is no reason to stop development for it either. The main area where there will be rapid impact on WP7 is on games. I don’t think too many (mainstream) game developers are going to start work on new XNA games now that they’ll be able to use C/C++ and the mainstream gaming engines. So I’d expect the rate of new game submissions to the Marketplace to taper off over the next few months.

      It is a complete guess on how rapidly WP7 activity tapers off. If it stops cold then Windows Phone is in trouble and Nokia could end up in bankruptcy. If it tapers off slowly, and Windows Phone 8 comes on the market soon enough, then it won’t be the end of the world.

  3. Reblogged this on Daniel's Public Blog and commented:
    Too true, too true…

  4. Jim Reuter says:

    You missed a category of user: the technically advanced enthusiast who doesn’t upgrade out-of-plan. I’ve got a kid in college and a mortgage, so I don’t ever buy a non-subsidized phone. When my two year contract is up, I wait until I can get something that I really will want to hang onto for the next two years. And I know that the “next great thing” will come along every couple of months for that entire two years.

    My contract expired a few months ago, and the temporary free-after-rebate offer for the Lumia 900 and glowing reviews were enough to push me to commit. So I now have that phone. And I love it. It’s by far the best, most usable, most stable phone that I’ve ever owned. It rocks. And I’m not limiting that comparison to just smartphones. It’s better and more stable than any feature phones I’ve owned.

    A year and a half from now, it won’t be the latest and greatest thing. But it’ll still be an amazingly usable smartphone. And so far it looks like it’s going to hold up really well; it doesn’t even have a scuff yet. Then, by the time I hit the next two year mark, I’ll start shopping again. And the WP8 line will have some maturity under it’s belt.

  5. Bob - former DECie says:

    My wife’s 3+ years old Nokia feature phone has a battery that won’t hold a charge for much more than a day with light usage and less than a day with moderate usage. She has repeatedly said she has no need for a smartphone. So yesterday we went looking for a new feature phone for her. We avoided the two corporate AT&T phone stores near us as we know they don’t sell feature phones anymore. Trying to think of where we might go, I remembered that Wal-Mart sells cell phones, so off we went to the smaller Wal-Mart in a nearby town. We saw T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon phones, but no AT&T phones. I found an employee and asked what happened to the AT&T phones and was told they didn’t sell them anymore. The employee did mention that there was an AT&T store nearby. Since this was a small town, with a population of less than 7,000 people, I figured the AT&T “store” was probably a reseller rather than a corporate store, so we might actually find a few feature phones there.

    We went across the street and sure enough, it was a reseller that had several feature phones. My wife told the salesperson that she was looking for something with larger text so the salesperson showed her a phone that allowed you to increase the size of the text. My wife liked that. I mentioned that my wife dropped her phone a lot as evidenced by the decorative colored duct tape holding the battery cover on the phone. The salesperson then suggested another phone that was much more rugged than the phone she had just shown my wife. My wife agreed that a sturdier phone was a good idea, but the sturdier phone didn’t have the ability to make the text as large as my wife would have liked.

    Right next to the feature phones were a few Windows Phones and I said, “Oh you’ve got the Lumia 900″ and pointed at it. My wife looked at the home screen and immediately said, “I like that!” Much to my surprise, the salesperson said, “It has a very good operating system.” I told my wife it was a smart phone and she’d have to learn to use a touch interface. She said she didn’t think that would be a problem. She’s also a former Mill Rat from the admin side of things, managed her own VAX Station, maintains the web site for her current employer, and has very good PC troubleshooting skills, so I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. The salesperson actually knew how to use the phone and after doing a good demo for her, my wife said she wanted it. I told my wife it couldn’t be upgraded to Windows Phone 8 but that I didn’t think that would be an issue for her. The salesperson said that the Nokia rep had said that it would be able to be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. I told her that none of the Windows Phone 7 phones would be upgradable to Windows Phone 8 but they would be getting an upgrade to Windows Phone 7.8. The salesperson said that she thought the Nokia rep must have given her bad info. Now whether she heard “7.8” and thought “8” or whether the Nokia rep was mis-informed, I don’t know.

    So for $49 + the price of a nice case to help protect the phone + 3GB data plan + two year contract renewal, my wife is thrilled with her new Lumia 900. I’m impressed that a 20-something female salesperson said something positive about a Windows Phone, knew how to use it, and didn’t try to steer my wife towards an Android phone or an iPhone. When the Windows Phone 8 phones become available, I think we will head back to that reseller for my new phone, even though it’s 20 miles farther away than two corporate AT&T stores and at least one other reseller. I like to reward good customer service.

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