Will existing phones be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8?

I’m not going to make some great revelation, as if I know the answer to this question.  I have not asked my sources, and if anyone with irrefutable knowledge of the answer told me then I wouldn’t pass it on.  But I will apply a little ‘softie experience to trying to answer it.  You see, I can think of only one reason why Windows Phone 8 would not come to existing phones.  And I’ll explore that shortly.

First let’s jump to the main technical issues blocking Windows Phone 8 from running on existing hardware.  Done.  Yes that was quick.  As anyone who has followed Windows 8 on ARM (WOA) knows Microsoft has had Windows NT running on phone hardware for many years.  Years before the Windows Phone 7 effort began.  There is nothing about the speed of the processors or amount of memory in Windows Phone 7 that would prevent Microsoft from running Windows Phone 8 on those devices.

Microsoft and its partners are very specifically going after the low-end of the Smartphone market, which would include devices well below the specs of devices like the Nokia Lumia 900.  So we have more evidence that it wouldn’t be a problem to upgrade most, if not all, first and second generation Windows Phone 7 devices.

Now let’s talk about business reasons.  Indeed carriers are not going to care about, or want to put effort into, upgrading existing phones.  And in many cases I agree with them.  When Windows Phone 8 ships nearly anyone out there with a first generation Windows Phone 7 device will be approaching the two-year mark.  For super rare devices like the Dell Venue Pro it makes absolutely no sense to offer an upgrade to Windows Phone 8.  And even for the more popular models like the Samsung Focus or HTC HD7 it is quite possible that carriers will decide to offer customers replacement phones at no cost (as long as they renew) rather than push out the WP8 upgrade.  That leaves Nokia’s phones along with the few second generation phones from HTC and Samsung as theyonly likely candidates for an upgrade.  To take several million customers and abandon them, and make no mistake that is what not offering them an upgrade would feel like, less than 6 months into a two-year contract would be disastrous.  Alienate your influencers and early adopters?  The platform has weak enough consumer support already, so that would be fatal.  The carriers might be that stupid, but Microsoft’s Terry Myerson is not.  What, you say?     Microsoft already did this once with Windows Mobile 6.x.   Two answers for you.  First, the Windows Mobile customer base was primarily enterprise users and Microsoft was going for consumers, so they took the risk that they would gain far more than they would use.  Why not take that risk again?  Exactly because it would be the second time.  There is no more “willing suspension of disbelief” magic for Microsoft, they must build on the Windows Phone 7 customer base or Kin-themselves.  Microsoft will make a Windows Phone 8 upgrade available, at least for second generation phones, unless…

So let me get to one scenario where Microsoft could decide not to make a Windows Phone 8 upgrade available, and to the alternative they would have to pursue.  Current Windows Phone chassis specs have a screen resolution of 480×800 (aka WVGA), the minimum for a Windows 8 (not Windows Phone 8) Metro app is 1024×768.  So what would be a natural minimum screen resolution for Windows Phone 8 Metro/WinRT apps?  Perhaps not WVGA.  In other words, although Microsoft has made it quite clear that existing Windows Phone 7 apps will run on Windows Phone 8, what if new Windows Phone 8 Metro apps could not run on WVGA displays?  That would mean it makes little sense to put Windows Phone 8 on the older WVGA devices made for Windows Phone 7.  Another way to look at it would be that Microsoft needs to kill off WVGA, rather than supporting it in new Metro apps, in order to avoid the long-term fragmentation for developers.

So if abandoning second generation Windows Phone 7 device owners destroys the platform and supporting WVGA unacceptably fragments the platform then what is Microsoft to do?  Well, let us assume there are 10 million second-generation Windows Phone 7 devices on contract when Windows Phone 8 ships.  Then Microsoft and its partners could simply offer to replace them all with free Windows Phone 8 devices.  Oh, I’m sure there would be some strings (e.g., extend your contract by a few months so you have two years from when you received the new device), we won’t debate that right now.  Assuming a manufacturing cost of $250 per phone, and that Microsoft bearsnthe bulk of the cost of the replacement phones, it would cost Microsoft $2.5 Billion.  They have the cash, and it would go on the books as a one-time charge (similar to the $1 Billion charge they took to fix the Red Circle of death in the XBox 360).  Wall Street would be fine with it, perhaps even applaud them for stepping up to align Windows and Windows Phone.

It was fun speculating about both a potentially real reason for not upgrading Windows Phone 7 devices and a way to address the resulting existential customer satisfaction problem, but that all still seems like a long shot to me.  I continue to believe that, despite people with good sources having contrary information, Microsoft will offer a Windows Phone 8 upgrade to some subset of the existing Windows Phone 7 devices.  I just can’t see Microsoft playing Russian Roulette with Windows Phone.


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12 Responses to Will existing phones be upgradeable to Windows Phone 8?

  1. Dave says:

    Hal, as we all know, hardware compatibility is much more nuanced than CPU and memory. ARM SOCs have no standards today, like pc hardware. Identifying capabilities and accessing them are all nonstandard. Windows CE, the kernel of Windows Phone offers lots of OEM cusstomization and plugin capabilities. Windows RT will likely drive more standardization of the SOC, the feature discovery process (aka plug and play), and even the boot process. Software may be infinitely malleable but often not cost effective or pragmatic to change. Lots of technical reasons Microsoft won’t be backwards compatible. But it really doesn’t matter. iPhone users enjoy OS upgrades. Android users are unlikely to get them without buying a new phone. Neither case hinders massive adoption. By not being clear on upgrades, Microsoft is marketing itself as all things to everyone. That strategy never ends well.

    • halberenson says:

      The chassis definition have kept OEMs from spinning out of control, nor does it seem like Microsoft has done much with WP use of CE since WP7 shipped. The platform itself is not (yet) fragmented like with Android. There may indeed be reasons other than a change in screen resolution for Microsoft to want to drop support for the existing chassis, like standardization of the boot sequence, but those are less justifiable. Particularly with the big mid-cycle push, and especially with the Nokia market entry. But Microsoft has done stupid things before, so I’m not totally discounting the rumors.

      • Bob says:

        I’ve been writing software for Windows for 20+ years, including my last few years at DEC, and I’m generally supportive of Microsoft, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with, “But Microsoft has done stupid things before, so I’m not totally discounting the rumors.” comment. Combine that with AT&Ts willingness to screw the consumer and I’m not willing to buy a WP until the dust settles.

        • halberenson says:

          I agree with you. As much as I want to promote Windows Phone I’m reluctant to do so until Microsoft’s upgrade plan is made clear. I sure don’t want people coming back to me and saying “You told me to get a Lumia 900 and now I’m stuck on an old version of the OS until my contract expires in 20 months”.

  2. Olisa Maduka says:

    I agree with you that old WP devices will get Apollo upgrades but I want to know your thoughts on the reasons MS is not talking about the update situation yet especially since a whole conundrum has been created across tech blogs and media.

    Personally I believe the reason, as some have already posited, is that the carriers and OEMs haven’t tested the new OS themselves and performed any quality assurance on update procedures. This naturally would mean that since Carriers and OEMs have stakes in updating existing devices as much as MS has, then MS can’t just come out to assure everyone of an upgrade path when the other parties cannot, yet. What do you think?

    • halberenson says:

      Well, the most likely reason is that Paul Thurrot is getting good information and old phones are NOT getting an upgrade. But it would be just as big a problem if the answer is more nuanced and they can’t commit to which phones or when.

  3. pmenadue says:


    Perhaps there is another option? (not necessarily a good one, but one nonetheless)

    There are two Windows 8 – Windows Phone 8 CE Edition and Windows 8 proper (Phone and Tablet/Desktop). The former would be a subset of all Win8 functions, but continue to run on Gen 1 phones, and the latter would run on new-gen phones.

    I heard in the press some time ago that there might be two streams – so hence this possibility.

    One thing that would worry me is the “Tango” phones with 256Mb of memory. I know the super-efficient MinWin kernel might possibly run in this – but it certainly sounds limiting.

    • halberenson says:

      Possible, but not likely. I think the base of the rumor was that they kept the upper levels of WP8 running on CE for a long time in case something went wrong with the switch to MinWin. But once they lock in a decision I think it will be locked for all. No, if they don’t update existing phones I think it is because after analyzing the Android world they decided the vast majority of users don’t care about updates. They likely combined that with some barely OK technical rational (from my resolution example to more modest things like trying to unify the ARM chipset boot requirements with those of Windows 8) in deciding not to do updates.

      If it weren’t for the big push around Nokia’s Lumia family so close to the WP7 launch I could actually be convinced that they could get away without updates. But with the “new car smell” still strong on the millions of phones Nokia will sell this year prior to WP8 I really think a no update strategy will backfire.

  4. Daniel Rose says:

    For the technical reason you state (WVGA), I wonder how that would work together with cheap phones? I don’t believe it would be possible (at least in the near future) to have WP8 “Tango” phone with the requirement for the screen to be 1024*768 or better.

  5. Joe Wood says:

    Another technical reason may be around the button and gesture support. If WP8 supports some of the Win8 type gestures (charms and task switching) the touch input area may need to extend beyond the screen to yeild the best results. The chasis spec may also cut the number of buttons down to one (windows start button). These are the only reasons that i can think of – to bring better app compatibility with Win8.

  6. It’s disappointing MS won’t make any statement which directly addresses this issue. Even to say, “we are uncertain at this point”, or something along those lines. Ignorance breeds contempt. I’m in Canada and if you think the Canadian carriers are going to give out a free handset? You’re having a laugh.

    Thank you though for taking the time to post your thoughts.

  7. Pingback: An update on Windows 7 to 8 upgrade from a former MS | webreid.com

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